O Beautiful and Wise

T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

As poetry is the highest speech of man, it can not only accept and contain, but in the end express best everything in the world, or in himself, that he discovers. It will absorb and transmute, as it always has done, and glorify, all that we can know. This has always been, and always will be, poetry’s office.

Conrad Aiken

Bread and Music

by Conrad Aiken  (1889 – 1973)

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread;
Now that I am without you, all is desolate;
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, belovèd,
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes;
And in my heart they will remember always,—
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise.


I wonder what archivists and critics of the future will do with all the electronic communication a person creates over a life time compared to when people wrote physical letters?   Will people take the time to collect a famous artists Instagram posts, emails, Face-book musings, texts and blog posts or will the electronic clutter of one’s life simply fade into obscurity?   What happens when someone stops paying WordPress for the privilege of being on the web?   I suppose Fourteen Lines gets taken down and goes into the ether from which it came is the answer.   The reason I ponder this question is because for poets of the era of Aiken and Eliot, their personal correspondence became another subject matter for publication once they became established as literary icons.   I doubt the young Aiken and Eliot gave much thought to it when they wrote letters to each other.   Here’s a couple of examples from the book of published letters of Eliot’s on the occasion of his 100th birthday. The first quote is before Eliot’s success as a poet when his confidence was thin and the second a few year’s later.  Pound is already living in London, where both Eliot and Aiken would spend considerable time in their careers. In 1914, Eliot has just arrived in London. 

There is a possibility of dining at a Chinese restaurant Monday with Yeats, – and the Pounds. Pound has been on n’est pas plus aimable, and is going to print ”Prufrock” in Poetry and pay me for it. He wants me to bring out a Vol. after the War. The devil of it is that I have done nothing good since J. A [ lfred ] P [ rufrock ] and writhe in impotence. . . . I think now that all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry – three years ago. . . .

T. S. Eliot to Conrad Aiken,  September 30, 1914

Money was always a challenge for Eliot and so he went to work as a banker for Loyd’s Bank in London a few years later.  The position offered financial stability, social status in dating, and an opportunity to remain somewhat aloof from the literary world or at least engage it when he chose to engage it. 

They are decided now. I am staying in the bank. . . . The work gives opportunity for initiative and is work for which they wish men of higher education. It will give much more responsibility, and therefore more freedom. . . .

As it is, I occupy rather a privileged position. I am out of the intrigues and personal hatreds of journalism, and everyone respects me for working in a bank. My social position is quite as good as it would be as editor of a paper. I only write what I want to – now – and everyone knows that anything I do write is good. I can influence London opinion and English literature in a better way. I am known to be disinterested. Even through the Egoist I am getting to be looked up to by people who are far better known to the general public than I. There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England. . . . I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and I can remain isolated and detached.

T. S. Eliot to his Mother March 29, 1919

I wonder what Eliot, Aiken, cummings and Pound would make of the current world of poetry?   Would they flourish and push new boundaries or would they be adrift? As for the two poems today, they could not be more different, the contrast is stark.  I think Eliot’s bleak depiction and misogynist tendencies would not get him published in Poetry today and I share it just because it is so strikingly odd a poem.  Do you have favorite poets that you find there are poems you hate and poems you like?  What’s your favorite Eliot poem(s)?


The Love Song of St. Sebastian

 
by T. S. Eliot
 
I would come in a shirt of hair
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled,
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light;
I should arise your neophyte
And then put out the light
To follow where you lead,
To follow where your feet are white
In the darkness toward your bed
And where your gown is white
And against your gown your braided hair.
Then you would take me in
Because I was hideous in your sight
You would take me in without shame
Because I should be dead
And when the morning came
Between your breasts should lie my head.

 

I would come with a towel in my hand
And bend your head beneath my knees;
Your ears curl back in a certain way
Like no one’s else in all the world.
When all the world shall melt in the sun,
Melt or freeze,
I shall remember how your ears were curled.
I should for a moment linger
And follow the curve with my finger
And your head beneath my knees—
I think that at last you would understand.
There would be nothing more to say.
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I had mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me

Unlearning How To Write

Gertrude-Stein
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

“Ultimately the poems you or anyone will write will be the poems you (or anyone) needs. I always think of this as the blind spot in the totality of verse, a place toward which each of us is driven & where we never quite fully arrive.”

Ron Stillman – University of Iowa Press – 2010.

The House Was Just Twinkling In The Moon Light

by Gertrude Stein

The house was just twinkling in the moon light,
And inside it twinkling with delight,
Is my baby bright.
Twinkling with delight in the house twinkling
with the moonlight,
Bless my baby bless my baby bright,
Bless my baby twinkling with delight,
In the house twinkling in the moon light,
Her hubby dear loves to cheer when he thinks
and he always thinks when he knows and he always
knows that his blessed baby wifey is all here and he
is all hers, and sticks to her like burrs, blessed baby.


Gertrude Stein is quoted as saying “Why do something if it can be done, ” implying that taking risks in originality is a far more satisfying.  Stein is an inspiration in creativity; a blazing intellect whose circle of friends were the avant garde in poetry, literature and painting. Her New York Times obituary read in part:

Although Gertrude Stein could and did write intelligibly at times, her distinction rested on her use of words apart from their conventional meaning. Her emphasis on sound rather than sense is illustrated by her oft-quoted “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

Devotees of her cult professed to find her restoring a pristine freshness and rhythm to language. Medical authorities compared her effusions to the rantings of the insane. The Hearst press inquired, “Is Gertrude Stein not Gertrude Stein but somebody else living and talking in the same body?” Sinclair Lewis concluded she was conducting a racket.

I think she would have been pleased to have so bold an accusation in print.  Personally, I don’t think that Stein’s poetry is very intriguing, and yet her passionate willingness to be different and to support other writers in their pursuit of originality was her real legacy in my opinion.

T. S. Eliot received heaps of praise and recognition during his lifetime among critics and readers, but silently many of his contemporaries, like William Carlos Williams, were discouraged that he dragged the poetry world backwards, for a short time, towards a more formal style, just as new voices were starting to emerge.

Why did Eliot’s poetry receive such widespread acclaim?  What about it made such an immediate impression on the public?  Very few poets of the past 100 years have achieved the critical and publishing success that Eliot achieved.  I wonder what would be the response to Eliot today?   Would there be an avenue for him to critical success or would he be lumped into the category of just another privileged Harvard educated pale, stale, male and find a limited audience for his poetry?

There are some poets whose originality and voice are timeless and others whose fame were only possible in the period in which they lived?  Eliot was a bridge from the old to the new. T. S. Eliot success was aided by Ezra Pound’s and Gertrude Stein’s influence and generous support.  I have read several places that Ezra Pound should be listed as a co-writer on nearly everything that Elliot published, so through was his editing and suggestions.  Unlike Whitman, whose brilliance is timeless, Eliot feels to me like a faded newspaper, whose even strongest prose is brittle and yellowing under the modern glare of more polished contemporary writers. But Eliot wrote poems that filled a need at the time and had the good fortune to be recognized generously for that creativity.


Excerpt from The Waste Land

by T. S. Eliot

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
                                      If there were water