I’ll report a little known and little cared-about fact: April is “Poetry Month,” started in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets. Thus, I am gladly turning my April attention to poems and poets I enjoy. Poetry was once the main written medium, but today it has fallen to an academic or esoteric pastime. For me, I continually find nuggets of gold…even diamonds…in poems: phrases and images that say things “just right.” For me, that is the value of poetry: capturing/expressing a pure idea in a perfect economy of words…expanding or enforcing the idea’s meaning with sound or rhythm or image. I feel that poetry has given me a rich vocabulary, because I call on poetic phrases and images regularly to illustrate my meaning.
I have referred to the poet T. S. Eliot multiple times in this blog…I find that he often says things perfectly. I would not recommend that novice poetry readers begin with T. S. Eliot, but if you want strong, beautiful images, ideas, and phrases, you’ll find them in his poems. He was born in the U.S. but became an English citizen in 1927 for the last 38 years of his life. Although he wrote relatively few poems, he is credited with writing some of the best-known poems in the English language and some of the most influential poems of the twentieth century, including The Waste Land (1922). I find Eliot’s poetry so rich in so many ways that I habitually appropriate his ideas. Naturally then, I start my Poetry Month blogs with Eliot.
As I began this piece, I was struck by an irony in one of my favorite poems, “East Coker” (1940), one of Eliot’s Four Quartets. He champions the idea of rebirth throughout the poem— “Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended…/Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires.” He stresses how rebirth gives us something new, but he stresses that it is very new, not simply a recurrence of what came before. He worries that the poem itself is “a worn-out poetical fashion,” but goes on to explain that “the pattern is new in every moment/And every moment is a new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been.” He sees the old made new again…but newly different. His poetical fashion may be worn-out, but “every attempt is a wholly new start.”
I began to worry that by trying to discuss poetry, I may be foolishly trying to resurrect a dying or dead academic pastime. In “East Coker,” Eliot warns us about the ideas of the elderly…that there may be no value to “the wisdom of age.” He wonders if the elders have simply deceived us and themselves, that their “dead secrets” are “useless in the darkness.” He wonders if there is “only a limited value/In the knowledge derived from experience.” The passage below describes his worry, poses the question, and wonders if all we really get from the elderly is “a receipt for deceit”:
What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,
Long hope for calm, the autumnal serenity
And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us
Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,
bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?
The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
(excerpt from “East Coker”)
But he relents…a bit. While he doesn’t give complete relief to his worry, he gives us—he gives me—a moment of hope: Maybe we just haven’t recognized our own wisdom yet, we haven’t recognized yet that the pattern is new and shocking. He urges patience and openness of mind…a patience that might allow us to recognize all that we don’t yet recognize:
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
(excerpt from “East Coker”)
I worried that my love of poetry and its insights may be just my own dead secret…but then again maybe the darkness into which I’m peering is really just a different kind of light. Ironically, Eliot’s poem gave me both ideas!