A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 7 June 2008

A Raid On The Inarticulate

When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes. From the essay The Metaphysical Poets by T. S. Eliot.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. From the essay Philip Massinger by T. S. Eliot.

Recently some bloggers have been been riffing round T. S. Eliot and his poems Ash-Wednesday and Four Quartets. While it can't be stated that Eliot wears his own formidable learning lightly, I suppose he can be excused, as he just happens to be one of the very greatest poets of the last century. Four Quartets is his masterpiece. Though this poem sequence - and the astonishing earlier poem The Waste Land - brim with literary references and obscure influences, Eliot miraculously synthesizes these into works of hypnotic and softening beauty, resolving them ultimately into a hard-won simplicity, a complex simplicity, one might say - gained after an aesthetic struggle with form and idea, meaning and philosophy, which has come to represent the general post-WWI artistic struggle in the society of his day. After the publication of The Waste Land - and especially after the publication of Four Quartets, though that came more than 20 years later - things were never really quite the same again in the literary world.

I remember the emotional and intellectual earthquake I experienced on reading these 2 poems for the 1st time. I didn't understand a word of them, but somehow just knew they were life and literature-changing. The musicality, the imagery, the whole form and sound of them got to me before any hope of deciphering the meaning emerged. I had Eliot himself to give comfort for my lack of understanding: ...genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood (from one of his essays on Dante); ...what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author (from The Use Of Poetry And The Use Of Criticism).

In modern geometry a fractal is a very simple algorithm which can explain an infinitely complex object, eg a large pattern is repeated exactly (consider a fern leaf) in smaller and smaller configurations within the same object. I feel that Four Quartets, in all its mystical, elemental and sophisticated complexity, has a fractal simplicity at its heart.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

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