Sunday, January 05, 2014

Some Eliot for the Feast of the Epiphany

(This just might be -- I'm not saying it is, but it could be -- a five-year-old post that is just as applicable today as it was in January of 2009 as we crept toward the Feast of the Epiphany.) 

Sometimes, on a Thursday night, I plop down on the couch, look at Atticus and ask, "What do I want to post for Poetry Friday tomorrow?"

He always has an erudite reply and an intriguing suggestion. He's an intelligent, fascinating man. I used to fancy myself equally intelligent and fascinating (we-e-elll, maybe not equally but close enough to hold my own in a good poetry discussion), and I considered us a perfect match. Several years back, I could keep up with all of his Wallace Stevens talk. Then I had children and for a few years, when sleep was so elusive, my mind started to slip. "The Emperor of Ice Cream" began to sound more like a character on the Disney channel than existential observation.

Anyway, in answer to the learned suggestions of Atticus, I usually stare into space a moment, take a sip of cabernet and say something like, "I think I'll write a poem about Putty," or "I'll just do Billy Collins again."

These exchanges remind me of a scene from Annie Hall in which Woody Allen and Diane Keaton are in a bookstore, and he says, "Here, I think you should read these, uh, instead of that cat book."

So, in order not to read a cat book today (though I must add the disclaimer that my beloved Billy Collins is not a cat book -- the metaphor refers only to my state of mind and has nothing to do with his poetry, which I much adore, and it is equally removed from cats, creatures I like very much), I am posting Atticus's suggestion: Journey of the Magi, by T.S. Eliot.

At first I groaned, "Ohhh, Eliot ... I don't know if I have the energy for Eliot." But then, I asked myself, "When did you last read Journey of the Magi?" And I had to honestly answer myself, "I don't know. It may have been several Emperors of Ice Cream ago." So, I read it. And, as always happens, I was mesmerized. How does he do that? How did he carry around the reputation of being too scholarly and too philosophical to write poetry, and then do that? It's so good, such a perfect melding of earthly earthiness and the supernatural. Like Jesus Himself, really. Eliot captures that down-to-your-bones discomfort, the squirming and the revelation, the discovery that this isn't really my home. That knowledge which at first is both comforting and terrifying.

Go here, to the Poetry Foundation, to read more about Eliot.

Journey of the Magi
by T.S. Eliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,


All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.


The full text of the poem is here, where you can also hear Eliot read it.