You could say I rediscovered T.S. Eliot last year, with emphasis on “re.” Fragments of his writing have haunted me since my high school literature days…
“This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”
“Do I dare disturb the universe?”
“Let us go then, you and I…”
Even when I was just exploring the edges of the world of poetry, those were the kind of phrases that I simply couldn’t forget.
Last year, I read The Waste Land and Other Poems and Four Quartets and knew it was only scratching the surface, so I’m super grateful that my friend Julie at Greener Trees selected The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner for our reading group’s next book. (It’s not too late to join us!) It’s a smallish book. It’s also dense and nerdy, and I’m exercising brain muscles that have atrophied since college literature classes. This is a very, very good thing.
This week was Chapter 1. I honestly don’t remember much of it, other than I wished I’d been taking notes around the halfway point. But I did jot down this quote:
“If we can discover a poetic rhythm in the most commonplace speech, this rhythm may then be capable of refinement and elevation so that it may accommodate the greatest thoughts without losing naturalness.” (p 25)
Some wonder, “Why poetry? Why not just say what you mean instead of using fancy words?” Poetry is Shakespeare and metaphors and rhyming. Or maybe it’s the modern writers who seem to make a pretentious alphabet soup on paper, or yell dramatic things in the corner of a dimly lit hipster coffee shop.
But poetry begins with a love of language, not just the beautiful speeches in old movies or the carefully constructed meter of the oldest poems, but the words of the street too, the easy dance of a quiet conversation between old friends, the way we inflect when we tell stories (often slightly embellished) about both the exciting and mundane moments of life.
“The dance of poetry and the dance of life obey the same laws and disclose the same truth.” (p 9)
Really, I could linger on this idea for an entire book. Where is the poetry, the music in our everyday words and actions? After a discussion about meter and a bit of scansion, Gardner mentions how once when asked to select some favorite poems for a BBC broadcast — “not his favourite poems, but poems that stayed in his head and came to his mind at moments when he was thinking of nothing much else” — Eliot chose highly rhythmic “thumpers,” the kind of lilting, emphatic poetry that first introduced most people to the music of words. And this is what comes to mind for most people at the mention of poetry. Rhyme and rhythm. Poetic language with a heft and weight that isn’t so obvious in our daily exchanges.
Which brings me back to some of the Eliot lines I never could shake…. “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky…” Perfectly ordinary, unpretentious words, only polished and naturally musical together.
I wonder if maybe it’s not that language has gotten uglier or lazier in a world of sound bytes and txt speak, but that maybe we just find it hard to really, truly listen. Eliot reminds me to do that. There is a poetry to everything if we pause to see and hear it.
And speaking of poetry in all things…. how about poetry and comics?! I had the pleasure of collaborating with artist and Rabbit Room friend Jonny Jimison on a comic called “Winter White.” I wrote some poetry and he worked some illustrative magic. Hop on over to his website and check it out. He says in a few drawings what I’m trying to get at with this post.