Tag Archives: T.S. Eliot

Calling the Poem: 6. ‘Of Sacrifice’

You learn to call, to pray, and to invoke
the gods with incense, roasting meat and smoke,
the smell drawing the gods like flies.
They like being honoured, they like gifts and sacrifice.
How do you gift a god of writing? Write!
Write when you have a thought, write day, write night.
How do you sacrifice? Accept this hardship:
you give up all activities
(regardless of your duties, your proclivities,
relationships) – for bardship,
because you don’t have time for them and writing.
Downgrade all love, work, striving, fighting –
for you must write.
You read, read, write, recite,
write and rewrite,
reread and rerecite.
(The modes you read impact the words you write,
impact the thoughts you have, and how they’re phrased.
Read novels, you’ll have thoughts in prose: straight, trite;
read verse, your thoughts will ramble, rhyme, be crazed.)
How bargain with the gods? Well, you can offer.
Can you demand? Well, no; you can’t.
Do they play fair? Take care with what they proffer;
you’re never sure if it’s a loan or grant.
How long will favours last? While you’re in favour;
a god or goddess owns you like a slaver.
And while for them you still produce,
still honour them… you still have use.
So keep on writing until you collapse,
and they’ll continue liking you. Perhaps.

*****

This is the sixth in the 15-poem sequence on Calling the Poem. The basic idea is that if you pay attention to the little scraps of poetry that come your way, in a random rhyme, a stray image; if you write them down and expand on them as you can; if you respect what comes to you, even if it isn’t what you want to hear; if you spend more time immersed in the medium that you want to develop… then you are encouraging the further communication from the mysterious force that provides the insights and images and words, the force that appears to be both inside and outside of you, the force that can be thought of as a muse or god. But the process is unreliable, because gods are unreliable, being inherently uncontrollable by us.

Matthew Arnold has a typically lugubrious and pessimistic overview of ‘The Progress of Poesy’:

Youth rambles on life’s arid mount,
And strikes the rock, and finds the vein,
And brings the water from the fount,
The fount which shall not flow again.

The man mature with labour chops
For the bright stream a channel grand,
And sees not that the sacred drops
Ran off and vanish’d out of hand.

And then the old man totters nigh
And feebly rakes among the stones.
The mount is mute, the channel-dry;
And down he lays his weary bones.

But that’s Matthew Arnold for you. He had a remarkably mournful muse. Perhaps he spent too much time as a responsible Victorian, a dedicated Inspector of Schools, and not enough time in the state T.S. Eliot called the “necessary receptivity and necessary laziness” of the poet. Eliot again: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” You are striving to be at the mercy of forces outside your conscious control – there can be no guarantee that it will work out exactly the way you want.

Illustration: “Sacrifice” by Tamara Artis is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 3. ‘Self-Belief’

Can you handle the wild poem? Can you tame the thing, or kill?
The certainty, uncertainty, of writing as a skill,
The being told to “find your voice”, the crawling like an ant
Across the skin of Literature, that giant, to implant
Some token of your individuality, some pin
To jab into the giant’s vast and ant-infested skin,
To make your mark by scrawling words, tattoos, to claim a win…
You can’t succeed alone against such odds!
But there are gods…

*****

This is the third poem in the ‘Calling the Poem’ chapbook sequence in Snakeskin. The question of self-belief can be difficult for any artist – given the thousands of years of recorded paintings, sculptures, poems, music, etc, how can you know that your tiny ant-like efforts will be enough to make a mark in the world? Can you hope to succeed? The choice might seem to be between the hubris of Yes and the defeatism of No – but you have a secret ally, if you pay attention: the Muse. If you are self-aware and mindful, if you stay alert for scraps from the unconscious, the dream-world including daydreams, if you are respectful enough to try to capture the little hints you are given, then the Muse (She, or He, or Them, Yourself, your unconscious, God or Gods or Angels, however you visualise this force and process) will provide you with insights and material you never knew you could access.

Your Muse is available to you… if you stop and listen, remain open and respectful of the unexpected. Again, the learning and the workloads imposed by others tend to act against this attitude. Take heart from T.S. Eliot: “a poet ought to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and necessary laziness.” That was not a flippant comment of his: it goes to the heart of learning to work with your Muse.

Photo: 8/17/09 Houston – Fire Ant Bite by stefan.klocek used under OpenVerse license

Review: ‘That Shakespeherian Rag’ by Edmund Conti

The problem of being
a 17-year
locust
is trying to stay
for 16 years
focused.

That poem is ‘Short Attention Span’ from Edmund Conti’s latest collection of verse. Originally the title was to be ‘O O O O’ in reference to T.S. Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land where the poet is being criticised by his wife:

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

It seems that the publishers sensibly preferred a title that would be more comprehensible, without the confusions of O and 0. So the next part of the quote was chosen–still idiosyncratic, but more useful. And, yes, Conti seems to have poetry singing rhythms in his head all the time, and he produces beautiful jazz-like drawings as in the book’s cover.

Both titles for the collection are pure Conti–he has a playful, Zen-like approach to life, highly literate, constantly referencing other writers (and other writers referencing other writers), expecting a level of knowledge and engagement from the reader, and often reducing his expositions to the shortest possible. So this latest volume is full of memories and meditations, jokes and puns, and threaded through with the words of others. Conti divides the book into 11 Shakespearean sections, starting with memories of childhood and youth, and then weaving through reading and writing, books and poetry, his neighbors and family (and their views of his verse), into a closer and closer look at mortality: the last four pieces having respectively four lines, two lines, one line, and nothing.

Conti writes both formal and free verse, depending what kind of playfulness he’s up to. When he parodies Emily Dickinson, of course it’s in her standard ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ meter and rhymes ABAB. But he’s a lot more free when he just wants some snide commens and a punchline. Here’s ‘Losing Battle’:

In a final desperate attempt
at survival, the sun sets
fire to the western sky.
Overblown, say my poet friends.
Cute, say my non-poet friends.
What does it mean? asks my neighbor.
How much will you get paid for it?
That’s from my wife.

My father’s an astronaut,
my son lies.

Engaging, amusing, thought-provoking, with many short passages that stay in the memory. A fun book for all poets. Just published this month by Kelsay Books.

Evocative Fragments: from Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night’ (1)

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.
And as, year after year,
Fresh products of their barren labor fall
From their tired hands, and rest
Never yet comes more near,
Gloom settles slowly down over their breast.
And while they try to stem
The waves of mournful thought by which they are prest,
Death in their prison reaches them,
Unfreed, having seen nothing, still unblest.

I’m very grateful to my schooling for putting Matthew Arnold on the curriculum – this subversive little passage seems designed to undermine the office and factory culture which has flourished since his time, to undermine even the student writing endless essays. Arnold was an inspector of schools as well as a poet and social critic, so we can assume he knew what he was doing. But isn’t it suggesting that a dissatisfied person should just drop out? More on that in the next fragment.

The other thing I like about the piece is its easy, flowing style. Every line rhymes, but without pattern. The lines are iambic, mostly pentameter, but a scattering of them are shorter. It feels very conversational, and it is certainly very easy to learn by heart (which is one of the reasons that poetry evolved in the first place). The only hiccup to natural speech are the displacement of ‘live’ and ‘give’ to the ends of their lines for the sake of the rhyme and even that, though artificial, is done conventionally enough to read smoothly. The rest of it is in normal speech. When T.S. Eliot came out with ‘Prufrock’ some decades later, though it had a different, Imagist sensibility, the only real difference in style was in dropping the thou’s and thee’s that Arnold still clung to.

Photo: “Office workers in Executive Building Room No. 123 prior to alterations, Brisbane” by Queensland State Archives is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Evocative Fragments: from Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

There are many evocative passages in T.S. Eliot’s marvellous and fragmented portrayal of the spiritual wasteland of the early 20th century, but the one that most resonates for me is this passage towards the end, in the final section ‘What the Thunder Said’. The section as a whole is full of signs and portents and the possibility of restoration, but who cares? These lines are just so wonderfully gothic!

Photo: “Juvenile Mariana Fruit Bat” by USFWS Pacific is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Anomalous First Lines: Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

There are two points of interest in the first line of T.S. Eliot’s first professionally published poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. The first is the identity of Prufrock’s companion – never specified, it is normally assumed to be the reader of the poem, but it could equally be another person, or creature, or good luck charm, or hat, or umbrella, or even the Muse of Poetry herself. It plays no further part in the story and yet, well, it’s there for reasons of rhetoric or invocation.

The second point is grammatical. The line is so embedded in English poetry that it seems sacrosanct, but periodically someone will point out that it should be “you and me”. Consider these sentences: “Let me go to the store for you.” “Let us go to the store.” “Let’s you and me go to the store.” In all examples, “me” and “us” are the objects of the verb “let”; there is no occasion for “you and I” any more than there is for writing “we” instead of “us”. You wouldn’t say “Let we go to the store.”

Caveat: perhaps a Jamaican would. So Prufrock in patois could begin, “Mek we go den, you an I” or in deference to my Rastafarian brethren, “Mek we go den, you an I an I.” But other than in patois? No, it should be “you and me”.

So why did Eliot write “you and I”? It makes a useful rhyme as part of the startling image that follows. Those who debate this issue often come up with alternative opening lines with a rhyme for either “me” or “you”. Thomas Middleton in the L.A. Times suggests:

Let us go, then, you and me,
When the evening is suspended from a tree
Like a horse thief or a swing put up for children.

while Peter De Vries has offered:

Leave us go then, me and you,
When the evening is dropped like an old shoe,
The first of what must inevitably be two.

Eliot’s version seems better, even if grammatically dubious. However it still grates. And it has the feeling of a class issue. Against the lower-class “you and me” used as a subject–“You and me gonna fight about this”–the upper-class reaction is to use “you and I” pretentiously on all possible occasions, even as an object. But that would suggest that Eliot was a snob… or J. Alfred Prufrock is, at the very least… and I think the voices are the same.

Short Poem: ‘For Eliot’

I guess
Success
Not elation
Or creation
Alone may men not mock;

God bless
T.S.,
Spared the temptation
Of our generation —
Writing rhymes for rock.

First published in Metverse Muse in India. As you might guess, I wrote this before Andrew Lloyd Webber set that “Old Possum” T.S. Eliot‘s rhymes to music for the West End and Broadway hit Cats, disturbing everyone (except the Poetry Foundation)’s understanding of both Eliot and musicals.

Photo: “T.S. Eliot” by duncan is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Review: ‘A Little History of Poetry’ by John Carey

A fascinating overview of the history of world poetry with a decidedly Anglo-American slant, very engaging and informative and yet inevitably irritating for wasting space on some aspects while ignoring other favourite poets–depending on the reader’s bias, of course.

Consisting of 40 seven- or eight-page chapters, the book leads with Gilgamesh and information new to me despite my familiarity with the poem; then the Greek and Latin classics, where I am vaguely interested but uninformed; then Anglo-Saxon poetry where I am incited to read more. And so it goes: a bit of this, a bit of that, with a lot of chatty biographical tidbits, clarifying who I want to read more of (Chaucer, Wordsworth, Hardy, the Thirties Poets, the Movement), confirming who is of no interest to me (Spenser, Milton, American Modernists, American Confessional poets). The chapter on Dickinson and Whitman had a very useful perspective; the one on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop was a waste of space. There seemed less insight in general as we moved into the 20th century, especially regarding American poets.

One thing that surprised me was to find how the hymns quoted in the chapter ‘Communal Poetry’–‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘Rock of ages, cleft for me’, ‘Amazing grace’, ‘Abide with me’–summoned up my decade of boarding school’s daily religion and made for a long meditation on the role of religious poetry in the forced familiarity with meter and rhyme. It almost justifies daily church attendance. But missing from this History is the similar role in other religions: the hymns of Hinduism, the Hebrew chants, the hypnotic rhythm and rhyme of the Quran… all aspects of verse being used to make a message word-for-word memorable, all building the use of poetry.

The other omissions were of English-language poets outside the Anglo(including Irish)-American sphere: I think McCrae is the only Canadian mentioned (for ‘In Flanders Field’), and Claude McKay (who?) and Derek Walcott the only other Commonwealth poets; also missing are modern ballad-writing poets like Bob Dylan; and, my particular peeve, no mention of either e.e. cummings or Gwendolyn Brooks.

I find Brooks and cummings the greatest American poets of the 20th century with the exception of Auden and Eliot (however you like to classify their nationalities). Their omission may reflect ignorance on the part of author John Carey, or they may have been left out as not fitting into his groupings of Modernists and members of the Harlem Renaissance. Whatever the reason, it’s a major flaw… in what is still a highly readable and rereadable history.

Poem: ‘Chrysalis’

After a billion years of larval hit-and-miss
humans emerged, stood up, and fed, and grew,
started to build their city chrysalis
from which, 3,000 years entombed, now formed anew,
they burst in wild bright flight with wings deployed
out to the stars. The egg case of this final birth,
the Earth,
was, naturally, destroyed.

We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rate of change is ever-increasing in all aspects of human life–from our bodies to our planet–and we will never return to the old normal. The good news is that this is the process by which life advantages to higher levels of organisation and intelligence.

This poem was originally published in Star*Line, one of the two magazines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The other magazine is Eye to the Telescope (ETTT).

The poem rhymes and is written in iambics; but the rhymes are not structured to a pattern, and the lines are of uneven length. This casual form is used by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot among others, in some of my favourite poems such as A Summer Night (I have always loved the three paragraphs beginning with:

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.
)

and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The form doesn’t have the musicality of more regular forms like the sonnet or limerick, but it provides all the memorising strength of rhythm and rhyme within a more conversational flow, and facilitates different lengths of thought including, if wanted, a punchline.

We live in difficult times, what with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, mass migration, infectious diseases, unpredictable technological advances in weaponry, and more. And the problems will continue to multiply and get larger, even as we develop solutions to the smaller, simpler ones. And from the inevitable destruction of our form of life will emerge… what? We cannot know, we probably cannot even imagine.

Photo credit: “Cicada emerging from old exoskeleton” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: “Bee”

“July Honey Bee” by MattX27 
Through the honeyed halls of Autumn
Hums the angry ageing bee;
As its work faces fruition,
And its life, redundancy.

This little poem was originally published in Candelabrum, a 1970 formalist hold-out that ran for forty years in the UK under Leonard McCarthy. More recently, it was just republished in Jerome Betts’ latest Lighten-Up Online.

Epigrammatic couplets and quatrains, being rhyme- and stress-based, are common throughout Indo-European languages. They hold the same natural place that haiku, senryu and tanka have in syllable-counting Japanese. It is easier to learn by heart a poem whose form uses the natural strengths of the language, rather than something written in a language-inappropriate form.

Similarly, when reading a poem in translation, you get the ideas and the imagery but you normally lose the enhancement of mood caused by the metre, the rhythm of the verse, as well as by the rhyme. So ideas and imagery alone give you prose, not poetry.

Consider the differences in tone of gravity or levity set by rhythm in these opening lines (and you need to read them aloud–in your head if you can do that, otherwise really aloud, in order to hear the rhythm, the beat of the lines):

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky...

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three...

On the top of the Crumpetty Tree
The Quangle Wangle sat...

The first is meditative, the second full of action, the third is casual, informal… and those moods are set by the rhythm alone.

Metre is an essential component of English poetry. Make the metre-rule your yardstick. Don’t leave home without it.