Dear Mr. Eliot

Reading through Eliot’s poetry, I’m trying to decide how much to look for meaning in his poetry, and how much just to appreciate the beauty of words and sounds, knowing there’s no meaning to be had. Some of his stuff definitely carries meaning in it, but some of it seems random. I love T.S. Eliot, but I’m not a big fan of this idea of separating sounds from their meaning. So, I wrote a poem about it in the closest appropriation I can come of about his style. Continue reading “Dear Mr. Eliot”

Morning at the Window

Reading through Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations this morning, I came across this gem. The last two lines of the first stanza made me laugh. I love Eliot’s ability to describe what he sees.

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.


Till Human Voices Wake Us

Last night I was reading some T.S. Eliot, an experience which somehow manages to enthrall and confuse at the same time. I came across this line in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” which gave me pause:

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

(If you think it’s weird that I picked this line to get all analytical on, you need to read the whole poem. This is tame.)

Just look at the little guy.

What’s the point of poetry? I know Robin Williams told us it’s to woo women, and there might be some truth to that– the first recorded words of man were a poem about a woman (Genesis 2:23). I used to think the point of poetry was to express thought and feeling more poignantly than is capable with prose, but I’m not so sure anymore. I think poetry is to the consciousness what a shell is to a hermit crab. It gives us space. Specifically, space to think and express. We don’t need poetry to survive, or even to communicate; but those of us who enjoy poetry know that it can give us words to say when we have none, or add depth and height to expression and emotion. A line of poetry or a poetic phrase that just fits is like… well, I suppose it’s like apples of gold in a setting of silver.

I’m not a deconstructionist, and I’m not a postmodernist. I believe that words and phrases have meaning. The meaning of a poem comes from the author, not the reader. But poetry, like all art, exists in time. It’s written, then read. If it’s any good, it keeps getting read. Some people talk about it. Other people listen. Lines are appropriated in other poems, movies, prose, music. They rebound and echo off of our cultural context, and pick up new meaning as they go along. From the author’s point of view, meaning precedes expression, but from the point of view of the reader, expression precedes meaning. This interplay between content and form can create some pretty jazzy metaleptical feedback. Poetry shapes readers and is shaped by them in return, as they share their insights with other readers who will never be able to view this line, this poem again without thinking of that interpretation.

Poetry shapes individuals, and it shapes communities. It does so on an affective level beneath that of ideas, able to access forbidden byways that proposition cannot touch. I wonder if this is why so much of the Scripture is written in poetry.

With Love From Mollie


Last weekend I was able to dig through some old family keepsakes and documents, and found quite a lot of interesting stuff. Of particular interest to me was my great-grandmother’s book of autographs, from the late 1800s.Autograph


These autograph books more or less functioned as the precursor to the yearbook. The inside pages were all blank paper, and friends or colleagues would write little messages to the owner inside. My great-grandmother used hers from roughly ages 14 to 21.

Surprisingly, there are a number of short poems written to her by her friends in here. Some are very good. This one, from her friend Mollie in 1888, was particularly  good.

Loveliest of lovely things are they
On Earth, that soonest pass away;
The rose that lives its little hour,
Is prized above the sculptured flower;
Even love, long tried, and cherished long,
Becomes more tender and more strong
At thought of that insatiate grave,
From which its yearnings cannot save.

[Edit: After posting this I learned that Mollie was quoting William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “A Scene on the Banks of the Hudson.” My apologies to the memory of Mr. Bryant; in my defense, however, I must say that Mollie never attributed the poem to him.]