From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Middles (3)—Marina

[a] Images return  RF

When I first set out to explore "middles," I was determined to let the flow of life and my thoughts guide me—and not to be too judgmental about what a "middle" might be. Today that pursuit leads me back to one of the most stimulating and problematic intellectuals of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). If you are not acquainted with his life, it is worth your time to learn a little more. If you are not acquainted with his poetry, the matter is far more urgent.

You see, Eliot was one of the great wordsmiths in the history of English literature. I stumbled onto his poetry by chance, when he became "poet one" in a plan that I had to memorize large swaths of exquisite English prose and verse, many years ago. I have written a little about this already in the "Flowers Bloom" posts on Round and Square. The short version is that I knew nothing, and did the literary equivalent of pointing my finger at a spinning globe before proceeding to the destination chance had chosen. I came upon T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems on the bookshelf, and decided to start there.

[b] Patterns
I began with The Wasteland, and memorized it line-by-line until the flow and swirl of the words made more "sense" to me than any meaning literary scholars mentioned. This has had a lasting effect on me, and I have developed a patience with reading other verse—including text in other languages, where I ordinarily would reach for a dictionary—that would have been hard to come by in any other way. T.S. Eliot, in short, taught me to love the words and their linkages, and it has only been in later years that I think I have come to "understand" some of the poetry. On a profound level, the cadences are still more important than the "meaning." Patterning is utmost; "meaning" is overrated, especially in our over-interpretive age. Learning to love a poem just for its pastiche of words is one of the greatest thrills I experience even today.

So why would I choose one of Eliot's Ariel poems for inclusion in the series of posts that I call "Middles?" Well, it is by no means the first place anyone would look in considering Eliot's poetry—or even his biography. Even the fiercest critic of Eliot's disturbing stands on several social issues, including his anti-Semitism, would have a hard time finding much beyond word-crafting in "Marina." It is stuck in the middle, so to speak, of Eliot's oeuvre, problematic as that may be. It is well worth a deeper listen and read, even if you have spent great swaths of time with The Wasteland or the Four Quartets

"Marina" is stuck in the middle, and in more ways than one. Eliot was enchanted by Shakespeare's part (it appears to be about the last half of the full text) in the play Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The plot dealing with Pericles and Marina, Eliot felt, is one of the great pieces of English literature. Not many people have taken this position, it is fair to say. Eliot's poem about a father's memories as he fades off into darkness expands upon those themes, making (for the reader of Pericles, Prince of Tyre) a strange amalgam of two of the greatest poets in the history of the English language.

Most of all, though, the language itself is sublime. Just listen to and read this very resonant little middle.


Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

Are become insubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye
Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.[1]
 [1] T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), 115-116.
             T.S. Eliot. Collected Poems, 1909-1962. Faber and Faber, 1963.

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