Thursday, February 9, 2012

As I start prepping to teach Four Quartets to my students, I am reminded (again) of why I like Eliot.

I find him comforting.

The Poetry

T.S. Eliot is perhaps best known for being hard to understand. He deserves this reputation. I find him hard to understand. But even when I was tearing my hair out because of a thesis on his work, his poetry spoke of peace in the middle of trouble. I share his wisdom with you now.

Eliot, having finished a passage that (apparently) describes the end of the world, concludes this about his poetry:
That was a way of putting it--not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.
It was not (to start again) what one had expected. 
As difficult as his poetry is, T.S. Eliot is the superstar of modern poetry. Yet even Eliot has his bad days. To him, his poetry (however widely acclaimed) is "not very satisfactory" and is in fact "worn out". Eliot has poured his heart into his writing, only to find that the finished product disappoints in its clarity and creativity. He has aimed for an Oscar candidate poem and produced a Hollywood reboot poem.

Even the act of writing poetry is difficult for Eliot: he calls it the "intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings." To a poet, writing is desperately important, but that doesn't make it fun. Writing is not fun for Eliot; it's "intolerable" - in other words, something akin to self-imposed torture. In Four Quartets Eliot has something he needs to say, and he needs "words" to communicate this "meaning", but the words will not come.

And they don't. The words never come. Eliot simply "start[s] again," editing and re-editing through another two and a half books until the Four Quartets are finished.

This is why I like Eliot.

The Application

Like Eliot, I frequently find whatever I have been working on to be "not very satisfactory." This blog, for instance: I spent more than an hour writing this tiny little devotional-thing on Eliot (and I just used the word 'devotional-thing' in a sentence to boot). And still, this post does not say quite what I want it to say.

Like Eliot, I also find that my projects involve an intolerable, unending wrestle. Teaching, for instance:  I teach the students, they get confused, I re-teach them and they learn, and then in the next unit they get confused again. For me, teaching is perpetually an "intolerable wrestle" to make knowledge clear.

A student today, faced with a lower grade on her summary than she wanted, shrugged and said, "I'm not a very good writer. This is hard for me." She too has experienced what Eliot describes: even to her, what she has written is "not very satisfactory". Writing takes a long time for her; it is the "intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings".

In other words, everybody is disappointed by what they produce. Everybody finds that their projects are harder or more discouraging than they expect them to be. And Eliot, Superstar Poet, gently reminds us that everybody feels exactly the same way at some point. In other words, we are not alone in our troubles.

And then he reminds us to simply "start again" and continue on until we're done.

"For us," Eliot writes, "there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

Come to think of it, that's a pretty biblical idea:
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).

1 comment:

  1. To think that 3 years ago I stumbled across 3 original copies of the Four Quartets tucked between many other books in a little library in the Lake District of England . . . it truly is hard to believe. It's even harder to believe that I was silly enough to open my mouth and say "look what I found."

    . . . Before I paid for them.

    Needless to say, all 3 copies went home in other people's hands.


    Love the entry!