Friday, January 02, 2009

Poetry Friday: Of Brain Cells and Eliot

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 (weeelll, maybe not equally but close enough to hold my own in a good poetry discussion), and I considered us a perfect match. Several years ago, I could keep up with all his Wallace Stevens talk. Then I had children. For a few years, when sleep was so elusive, my mind started to slip. The "Emperor of Ice Cream" began to sound like a character on the Disney channel.

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

These exchanges often 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'd like to read this, uh, instead of that cat book."

So, in order not to buy a cat book today (though I must add the disclaimer that my beloved Billy Collins is not a cat book -- the metaphor refers to the state of my mind and has nothing to do with his poetry, which I much adore), 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

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;

The full text of the poem is here.

The Poetry Friday roundup is at A Year of Reading.


TadMack said...

OHHH, Karen.
*happy sigh*
This is why I like you.
Thanks for forcing me out of easy, into Eliot. And happy new year to you and Atticus and the ice cream fiends.

Margaret in Minnesota said...

Journey of the Magi is one of my favorite poems--far easier to tackle than, say, The Wasteland. ;)

When I was doing my student teaching, I read it to my English honors students. They sat there mesmerized, and then--to my great disappointment--the bell rang before we had a chance to discuss it.

I'd had 'em in the palm of my hand, Karen! Or Eliot did, anyway.

Melanie B said...

Oh my beloved Eliot! I do love him so. This is one of my favorites. I think teachers do him such a disservice by pretending he's so hard. Really he isn't. Oh just read The Four Quartets and don't try to think too much, just feel the truth and beauty of his words.

Sara said...

The thought of camels, "galled and sore-footed...lying down in the snow" is so painful and evocative. And then the discomfort of the ending. Yes, Eliot knew what he was doing, all right. Even the bland, sentimental title sets us up for the fall.

The Bookworm said...

One of my favourite poems too :). Thank you for reminding me of it.

Karen said...

I'm not a big poetry reader and just found your blog, but I do love to read. This was an awesome poem and I look forward to every Friday so I can read some more!

Sarah Reinhard said...

Karen, have I told you lately that I love you? I know, seems out of place, but you WILL get me reading poetry more often, you WILL. And I'm always better for it. (Now, if I could just get back in the Poetry Friday habit...)

Lee Strong said...

I always thought of "The Waste Land" as an early work marked by youthful despair, and "Journey of the Magi" as a product of a more mature poet who had found faith.

Thanks for posting this.