Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ode to Eliot

Shape without form, shade without colour;

Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men.

- from "The Hollow Men"

Poetry was never my forte. Though an English major and aspiring writer, I had always preferred novels and the occasional short story. Although modern prose certainly has its fair share of ambiguity – William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Burroughs come to mind – poetry seemed to be the written equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting. The literary landscape was apparently strewn with eccentrics reaching into the language, pulling out random words, throwing them at a sheet of paper, and seeing where they stuck. It is truly ironic that I finally overcame this aversion when I was introduced, in an English course during the fall of my sophomore year of college, to the one of the most impenetrable poems of them all: T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."

"You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

"They called me the hyacinth girl."

– Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,

Your arms full and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed' und leer das Meer.

- from "The Waste Land"

I don't remember now, but I think I was rather horrified at first. Not only was it a long poem, it was also stuffed foreign languages and obscure literary references. I suppose it was as much the instructor as Eliot's genius that finally won me over. We had vehement political disagreements, but this particular individual was an excellent professor who truly did justice to the Modernist movement. "The Waste Land," I slowly realized, was genius at its height. The blend of the surreal and the mundane into a waking, blasted dreamscape; whispers of past grandeur adrift in the disillusion and decay of the present; the starkly beautiful imagery – I had read many novels, but none that affected me as profoundly as this poem.

. . . And God said

Shall these bones live? shall these

Bones live? And that which had been contained

In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

Because of the goodness of this Lady, and because

She honours the Virgin in meditation,

We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled

Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love

To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.

- from "Ash Wednesday"

I still cannot truly define what it is that makes Eliot so unique in my experience of poetry. Somehow, in some way, he managed to combine the abstraction of a Picasso with post-WWI trauma to capture the mood of a shocked society. Eliot introduced the Modernist rejection of realism in art and prose to a genre already known for being intangible and up in the air. Eliot's poetry is reminiscent of the dissonance and atonality of a Stravinsky piece: jarring at times, seemingly meaningless, felt rather than concretely understood or identified. His poems simply give rise to a moment or an emotion in a manner that makes perfect sense without the candor of prose. It is as though his metaphors and images were instinctive rather than intellectual. I honestly cannot adequately explain it. All I can offer is an Emily Dickinson quote (another poet I have come to enjoy since discovering Eliot): "When I feel as though the top of my head has been taken off, I know that is poetry."

. . . "Stetson!

"You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!

"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

"Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,

"Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!

"You! hypocrite lecteur! Рmon sembable, Рmon fr̬re!"

- from "The Waste Land"


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