RECONFIGURING ROMANTICISM: A Reading & Discussion of Experimental Poetics

The machinery of identity-creation


When Kara Thrace first appeared on the screen and it became clear to the audience of the new Battlestar Galactica that Starbuck was a woman, one first looked at the new version and thought this character is still “coded” as a “male” character—the same old wise-cracking, cigar-smoking, hard drinking sexual predator he/she/ze always was. Like the Cylon enemies, the body of Starbuck in the past—in this case Dirk Benedict’s body—had been downloaded into a theoretically identical body; in this case, her gender, though nothing else, was switched. One’s second thought was to look back at the original Starbuck character and ask was the sexual tension between Apollo and Starbuck always there? If you look at those old episodes, you will agree that it was. The past writes the present, for sure, but the present always returns the favor.

A body, duplicatable and so actually bodiless is thus like the signature Dickinson sealed away, written on a separate card and included with her first otherwise unsigned letter to Thomas Higginson. There are a dozen different versions of the body unfolding around the self, written and overwritten. Dickinson herself was of course over-written—deleted and edited into limbo. She has, in a fashion, been restored, though Susan Howe’s complaint that the relineation of Dickinson continues has been largely ignored—except in the Paris Press edition of Dickinson’s letters to her sister-in-law Susan—and of course the bowdlerized Dickinsons of Bianchi, Todd/Higginson, and Bingham are all in the public realm and continue to be widely republished; at least one edition of those by a well respected publisher carries a foreword by a former U.S. Poet Laureate.

Of all the crew on the Pequod it is Starbuck who most wishes to disobey his captain. Both like and unlike his galactic counterpart, Melville’s Starbuck has a strong streak of rebellion but is fundamentally part of the larger social order and continues to support it. Standing before the sleeping Ahab with a gun in his hand, for all his Christian values, he is unable to make the brutal decision that needs making—by murdering Ahab he will save both the ship and all her crew. Does the population of the ship—hence the world—die by Ahab’s madness or by Starbuck’s inability to act? The future Starbuck, in space and newly female, does not choose a different fate; still driven by her gut passions rather than intellect, she becomes a new Ahab complete with her own salvation complex, visions and Starbuck-figure/enabler.

Higginson himself, known to us as the pompous editor, literary muck-up, distorter of genius, was actually hard at work the whole time on another issue. A dedicated abolitionist, Dickinson’s correspondent was one of the “Secret Six” who raised money for John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and later tried to raise funds for his defense; he later put together and led into combat the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first federally recognized all African-American regiment in the U.S. Army. Neither scholar nor mentor has managed to speak themselves clearly through the shadows of history.

Is the individual body—whether Higginson’s, Dickinson’s, Layla Al-Attar’s or Rachel Corrie’s—hopeless against the tidal wave of history, the universal social action of the mind? One is reminded of Neo’s dilemma from The Matrix. He wants to know if he has individual will at all or whether he, like those who preceded him, is condemned to make a choice based solely on his experiences and previous circumstances in his life. In other words, is “identity” an actual spiritual concept grounded in an “individual soul”? Or is it shaped like the body is shaped by its DNA and lineage and physical activities in its present life?

The machinery of identity-creation seems even a bit more clear now; it doesn’t need to be rehearsed or sung over and over again but rather can be cleanly assembled from do-it-yourself parts in the infinite rooms of Myspace or Facebook. And one doesn’t have to engage in such creation alone; it’s nearly a collaborative process, since after all: “You have 2,142 friends.” In other words, the mind, having always had the ability to travel at the speed of light, is finally bringing the body along for the ride. Having transcended its corporeal limitations, the body flies apart in immaterial ecstasy. The electronic locus offers not only sensual interaction, in the form of photos, conversations via wall, message or chat, but also a form of memory, both short-term and long-term.

This may be a particularly American or Western dysfunction gone global. Paul Virilio writes in The Information Bomb, “From the beginning, the dimensions of the American state were unstable because they were more astronomical than political.” Ships were sent adrift across the ocean in search any living thing and they did not find what they thought they found. The horizon that stretched before them became then, a national obsession—to move past sight, move past what the body could experience, to move in “manifest destiny” until it simply became impossible to move further.

Where we once thought of the mind in terms of metaphors of the body—which is to say the understanding of corpus was the grounding experience, the anima a poetical (or “astronomical”) consideration—we are now moving in the other direction, that is to say, considering the body in terms of metaphors of the mind. As Virilio writes it, the screen has become the new version of the horizon, the limits of sight and perception. Unlike the horizon, however, the screen is the lip of the infinite through which anything can be seen. And of course, since “anything” can be seen, information in its infinite and supersaturated sense, it’s “nothing” not “everything” that we are actually looking it. Or to carry it further, as Jean Baudrillard explains it, if everything means something then nothing means anything.

The bodiless mind just as dangerous in this case as the mindless body, and where does it leave us but half-way to “nowhere?”

When once a person sent a letter, signed and sealed—or in Dickinson’s case unsigned and sealed—now one gets electronic messages, instantly replied to, without what Anne Carson called the eros of distance in between. Imagine the difference between the pencil’s mark on the paper, the sound of it moving, the licking of the strip of envelope, the sealing. There is only the tactile touch of fingertips on keys to send someone a message or better yet, that odd performance of intimacy, to “write” on “their” “wall.” A wall which is not a wall, and not theirs—it is public, and if you write on anyone’s wall, helpful announcements race around the world at the speed of information to alert hundreds or thousands of others that you have done so.

The incorporeal corps (or is that “corpse?”) of your “profile” is not a private body any longer but a public one, one with its own sophisticated apparatus for sensing public movement and information in the slightest of degrees. Alex has written on your wall. Farrah has tagged you in a photo. Chelsey and Bernard are now friends.

Can we carry the metaphor of this back into the corporeal world? Why not speak a line of poetry, a single line—hold it in your memory, in your body and mouth and then to sing it in the world? There is a line I carry in my head from Sappho’s Gymnasium by T Begley and Olga Broumas—perhaps it is even closer to my point that it is a line written by two people, a line that has passed between bodies, a communal line. The poem in its entirety, from the sequence “Vowel Imprint,” runs like this:

transitive body this fresco amen I mouth

Don’t just look at it on the page; say it. Say it now, I beg you. And say it the way I’ve heard Broumas recite it: the consonants mere excuses, tent pegs; open your mouth on the vowels and let your breath into the universe. The body is a functioning unit, a machine in service of energy that is neither created nor dispersed but is in eternal state of transfer. On this point a poet, a vedantic philosopher and a physicist would each be in harmonious agreement. It’s not science fiction after all but a fact of the physical universe: matter—dark matter and anti-matter included—is neither created nor destroyed.

I wonder if the purest expression of poetry is in sound and not sense. Poetry might be able to tell you something you don’t even know but only if you dare not to know it. Robert Hass said it, “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry,” but his was a physical response to a primarily intellectual drama. In a Michael Waters poem the break-up of a marriage necessitates three mantras, meant for different moments in the process, “green ash, red maple, black gum.” They are like the bhij mantras of ancient yoga practice in which the interior of the body can be cleaned, heightened, by the sound of the mantra itself resonating through the internal cavities.

If the purest expression of poetry is in sound and not sense, maybe the purest way of experiencing it is in a single line—a line you can chant and understand to yourself and your self. A last line like Waters’ “black gum, black gum, black gum,” final syllable of which is actually one of the seven bhij mantras, a syllable that pulls the sound and thus the energy internally and down into the root of the spine, so opposite in its aural qualities and expiation of breath than Hass’ line, flooding out into the world, starting with the aspiration of the second “b” and flooding from the breath to the mouth and beyond by virtue of the liquid middles consonant “r” and the final released vowel.

What is breath after all? Not the inhale and the exhale only but also the moments in between each. Say aloud here:

transitive body this fresco amen I mouth.

After the initial cluster of short syllables the line turns on the word “this”—totally empty, yet fully directive—to all the long and open spaces that follow. To me the line is out of order with regular poetic syntax. The speaking “I” comes very close to the end of the sentence. It is not fully clear what the subject, main verb, and object of this line are. Is the fresco being mouthed or the body or is the mouth an open space at the end of the line, mere descriptor for the I? Can you diagram this line? Send all attempts plus commentary to me at I’ll tattoo the most ecstatic answer somewhere on my body’s blank. It will be up to you to find it.

The body is both transitive here, a passage, a bridge of flesh for breath between states of before and after, but also a fresco, made of pieces from all eras of time and all places throughout the universe. Once more, a poetic metaphor that scientists can agree upon. The word “amen” here, from Christian and Muslim prayers both, does not conclude but is rather surrounded by the present of the body and the action of the personality within it.

The line itself to me holds the best parts of poetry—music and energy that moves through both the body and the intellect as energy, poetry that depends on the body for its expression, word arrangement that works against or outside grammar, and for an extra bonus the word “I.” Rimbaud may have said “I is an other,” which is very provocative, but the real problem is that I really isn’t an other, is it?

Dickinson’s textual body was literally broken to pieces by the hands of two women, her brother’s wife and her brother’s lover. The daughters of these women continued the practice. No matter what kind of work R.W. Franklin did in matching ragged paper edges and watermarks to one another, some secrets keep themselves. More interesting perhaps is Marta Werner’s textual work with the scraps and fragments that remain. What Werner does is read the surfaces—the actual body as it exists today.

In fragment A638a in Werner’s cataloging, on a small bit of paper Dickinson writes a shocking manifesto to the future of the body of poetry:

We do not think

enough of    the

Dead as   Exhili

rants    they are

not     dissuaders

but    Lures—

Keepers   of   that

great Romance

still to us    fore

closed –  while

we   Envy     their

wisdom     [       ]


Coveting their wis

dom   we   lament

their   Silence

Grace is still

a secret—

The untranscribed word following the first wisdom, to my eye, is either “made” or “nude,” interesting in either case, though I’d rather it “nude.” Still the spacing, the lack of hyphens in the cut words, the stumble and stutter and re-start are things I love the most about both this Dickinson text and about the practical existence of the individual human body.

But it gets better than this, better than I can adequately reproduce here, because written vertically in the gaps between words in the text are two additional couplets. The first, running down the left portion of the page, reads: “That they still exist/ is a/trust so/daring.” It cuts the Dickinson text in two vertical columns to create a subsection along the left margin that reads:

“We do/enough/Dead/rants/not/but/Keepers/great/still/closed/we/wisdom//

Coveting/dom/their Grace/a.”

Even cut to pieces, when it is by her own hand and her text left otherwise unedited, Dickinson is brilliant. Along the extreme right margin of the paper is another couplet that reads, “that they have existed—none/can take away.” Indeed, the human body holds its own suppressed experiences, its own revisions, deep even the cells of its very flesh, even when the sophisticated mind plays every trick in order to forget.

In the secret and confused texts of Dickinson’s fragments one can be lost in the language, be dizzied in it, seduced by it, distressed, or dreamed of. To quote Broumas and Begley’s “Vowel Imprint” one more time, “where I unbind my hair light’s first blue witness.” As in Dickinson, I begin to suspect it is the lack of punctuation and its determination to lock down the syntax of a phrase that allows the language in these scraps to sing.

I suppose what makes Broumas and Begley’s work in Sappho’s Gymnasium so compelling is that the fragments are intentional and they are oral. As such they bridge the gap between the irretrievable lost history of the woman writer and embodied present in which the scraps and fragments that remain still live and blazingly so. Fragments spoken like this carry the height of meaning, a space between the reader and writer that is so dizzyingly intense one—whether reader or writer—has no choice but to stutter or moan.

What was it Icarus saw on his way plummeting down to the ocean’s surface? Or Pip the cabin-boy, in Moby-Dick, hanging on to the tarred-up barrel for a day and a night, a castaway, inch by inch going silently mad? What made Pip mad was his vision of the absolute horizon through the day and the night—he came to perceive the dizzying infinite, God’s foot on the treadle of the loom of creation, but what he saw was the vastness of nothingness.

The horizon of nothing is what we, in American obsession, came to the edge of eventually. In fact, once this occurred, once we had fulfilled our ‘manifest destiny,’ it seemed, as Virilio wrote, that “the history of the United States seemed to be completed, seemed halted at the outer limit of the continent, on the horizon of the Pacific.” Did it seem inevitable then that we would eventually push further, occupying territories in the Pacific, and Alaska? The occupation of the Philippines at the beginning of the twentieth century marked the beginning of this imperialist project, one that continues today. America, as Virilio continues, was “still hungry—not so much for territories as for trajectories; hungry to deploy its compulsive desire for movement, hungry to carry on moving so as to carry on being American.” One could infer also that this American restlessness within the polity is mirrored by restlessness in the individual body. As Jean Baudrillard writes in his book America, “All these track-suits and jogging suits, these loose-fitting shorts and baggy cotton shirts, these “easy clothes” are actually old bits of nightwear, and all these relaxed walkers and runners have not yet left the night behind. As a result of wearing these billowing clothes, their bodies have come to float in their clothes and they themselves float in their own bodies.”

What’s happened is the end of locality, the end of the body, the end of actual physical existence in the world and the beginning of pure concept—how can we even be where we are? One extreme are the human bodies in The Matrix, not at all where they are, but stacked like eggs at the supermarket, plugged in like the batteries for consumption that they are. Is this significantly different from the hyperreality of Facebook? At the other extreme you have the lost exile adrift in a world without place; as Edmond Jabès explained it you are never really anywhere, because everywhere you go you have brought all the places you have left with you. In an increasingly electronic world, where information is in a constant feedback with events themselves unfolding, Virilio even argues, “Here no longer exists. Everything is now.”

When Pip looked out at the horizon he saw nothing and went mad. The American empire itself continues to thrust its hands out, reaching, reaching to infinity. But the globe, cyberspace not withstanding, is not infinite. At some point, arms reaching out will meet one another. No one on the ship bemoaned the loss of Pip, remember. He was found by accident and once he displayed his eerie poetic rants, no one wanted anything more to do with him. It was Ahab who was alone ultimately able to take the gibbering child under his wing and in a fashion, rehabilitates Pip by ushering him into an embrace of his madness.

Of course Pip did not see “nothingness” on the horizon. On the contrary the horizon led him to the new horizon in his own delirium, Virilio’s ‘screen.’ Pip imagined himself sinking below the surface of the ocean into the unknown depths where he saw not nothingness but the wondrous shapes of infinity. It was the infinite of the screen, not the absolute absence of the horizon that revealed to him the figure of God and ultimately drove him out of his mind. “Man man’s insanity is heaven’s sense,” Ishmael remarks, and then slyly reminds the reader that these visions are not merely the province of the mad, but that Ishmael himself, before the novel’s close, will likewise be abandoned.

  1. Will we, obsessed with the screen/horizon, be abandoned to ‘madness,’ a permanent suspension in ‘now,’ eternally ‘space-less’ like the humans plugged into the Matrix? Though to go inside one’s mind, through visions and sound, is also a great gift. In Andrew Joron’s poem “Materialism, his vowels fold and unfold into and out of one another, all along maintaining the greatest intellectual engagement. The poem opens “Failed fold/  makes the cut continuous—//Unclosed is/Unclothed/     in the drama that Thou art//           outward the word (outside//      —interstellar costume—//         the fits of a dress).” What he enabled the poetic line to do is have a thousand lives, combining and recombining in sound, sometimes being echoed several lines later. It’s Steinian in its treatment of language as plastic material, Dickinsonian in its creepy inquiry into the nature of the relationship between individual identity and the outer world, and Barbara Guest-like in its sheer playfulness and joy in poetry (who would have expected that “interstellar costume” to show up?).

Though the sound pattern does nothing but repeat, Joron continues, “Unrepeating pattern//        where/X relaxes relation, where//X licks the elixir of/        night’s rhyme with light.” X here perhaps means the unknowable in the equation of identity—where does it come from, how is it constructed? In the first mathematical guess, the unknowable of ‘identity’ might release the stress of knowing the difference; but in the second, the X know the answer is found in pure ecstatic engagement with the senses.

It’s the senses we’ve stopped depending on. As our information-gathering facilities slowly transform from biological and internal to technological and external (and threaten now to transform again to technological but internal—a chip in my hand, a chip on my heart!) it is our corporeal form itself, the human body, that Virilio argues is the last frontier “which has at all costs to be invaded or captured through the industrialization of living matter.” Small wonder then, that while the science fiction of the forties, fifties and sixties was obsessed with the political cold war, that of the seventies and eighties and early nineties obsessed with disasters on a global scale (Zizek argues in Welcome to the Desert of the Real that a society in such extreme excess as ours actually dreams of the disaster, is secretly just waiting for it to happen), science fiction of the late nineties and new millennium is obsessed with the individual human body, how it can be colonized, changed, subsumed. Whether a Terminator, a Cylon, or hapless human caught in The Matrix, we are not who we say we are, are unable to assert our own human existence as tender bodies in the face of technological expansion.

In fact, this human panic is built into all of the science fiction dealing with the trauma of the clash between technology and civilization. The Cylons, constructed by humans, believe in their own souls as created beings. In this they are a re-boot not of the original Galactica series, but actually of Victor Frankenstein’s creation, now so caught up in the destiny of his creator he has taken on even his name. The villainy of Victor Frankenstein in Shelley’s novel is not in the creation of life itself but in his refusal to take responsibility for his creation and teach him. While his initial refusal results in the textually ambiguous—in terms of intention—death of William Frankenstein, it’s the later refusal to provide the creature with his companion that turns the creature truly murderous.

Even in science fiction—especially in science fiction, magnifier of our own anxieties—the racialized body, the queer body, are each particularly vulnerable. After all, the transformation of Starbuck to Starbuck engendered (forgive me) acres of critical and academic discourse as well as good old-fashioned outrage—check out Dirk Benedict’s reactionary blog post “Lt. Starbuck—Lost in Castration” as well Carla Kungl’s incisive critique of it, “Long Live Stardoe! Can a Female Starbuck Survive?”—the transformation of Boomer from Black male to Asian female barely made a blip on the screen. Is it because the Blackness of Boomer was less intrinsic to the character than the maleness of Starbuck? Is it because Herb Jefferson, Jr. had less a claim on his character than Dirk Benedict had on his? Is it because in the minds of viewers and critics Black and Asian were both “other” to the white and so the two Boomers, though of opposite genders, somehow equaled themselves and elided any gender difference?

Boomer, having switched genders and races, seems to be predestined to make the next step: she switches sides. Revealed as a stranger in her own body and abandoned by those she loved, she adapts to her situation by embracing her role as a betrayer. As if to even the karmic scales, another version of her own self, downloaded into a different body, switches allegiances also in addition to taking Boomer’s place on the Galactica crew. It’s this quid pro quo switch that makes Battlestar Galactica so compelling and so disturbing. Who is the enemy? Who is the noble one? As in the actual novel Frankenstein (and as opposed to the popular myth of the mad scientist and his monster) one can never quite make up one’s mind.

What Victor never manages to do is confront his own creature and accept responsibilities for his own actions. At the heart of the technological disaster is always the spark of human that made it so, because in poetry you can always speak in riddles, say one thing and then another, the chains of logic in poetry like the dual paths in the body, motion of inhale and exhale, talking out both sides of one’s mouth and offering a new way of understanding the flickering and mortal world.

To assert humanity and the validity of the human experience seems terribly important, otherwise the bodies of humans disappear into the drift of history and political events, the way Rachel Corrie’s body disappeared, or Layla Al-Attar’s—flesh and bone, destroyed physically, certainly, but also banished and vanished in the sea of information in constant production. Dickinson wrote her name on a small card and sealed it up in a tiny envelope, including this with her otherwise unsigned letter send to Higginson.

How small one can make oneself inside one’s own mind. In his sequence of poems “Two Suitcases of Children’s Drawings from Terezin, 1942-44,” Edward Hirsch makes several turns using sound and the line break to heighten the emotional intensity, as if he were delicately opening signatures sealed in an envelope. These were real children, kept in a concentration camp designed to prove to visiting officials that the Nazis were not persecuting Jews. The very unreality of the concept (the children were eventually all killed) represents the same disconnect between war and the individual body, death as represented in news reports and empty numbers and actual bodies on the ground. Hirsch writes in one section, “All night the girl/looked out the window/until the window disappeared/and there was no girl.”

Just as there is a confusion between what is real and what is imaginary, the children cannot remember their previous lives or experiences: “No one in dormitory L410 remembered/if the Talmud was written/in black letters on white fire/or in white letters on black fire.” The truth implicated in the confusion is more sinister than the merely poetic; in such an atmosphere of a prison camp, whether a “model camp” or no, has real import: “She painted herself light blue/when she felt like a flute//She painted herself dark blue/when she felt like a cello//She painted herself black and blue/when she was bruised into silence.”

Here in a camp where young Jewish children were given music lessons, dance lessons, art lessons, then ushered quickly to their deaths, even the imaginary holds real menace: “He drew a German shepherd inside a cage/and blacked the cage with a crayon//It was sealed shut/but he could hear the dog barking at night.”

Hirsch creates the sense of severe disconnect between what one can say and what can understand in two remarkable couplets near the end of the section. In the first, a simple word shift, as in Andrew Joron’s poem, opens up a new road to understanding: “We did not make graven images/we made images from the grave.” In the second he uses a line break in a repeated phrase to contradict the earlier message of hope:

            Someone wrote in tiny letters in pencil

            I don’t believe God forgot us


            but someone else scrawled in thick letters in pen

            I don’t believe


            God forgot us

This one line in dialogue with itself takes an haunting and awful meaning here as manipulated by Hirsch, and to me this is the richness of the body—breath that moves into and out of itself, and words that move amongst each other, turn each other over to create new rooms of meaning. In this I am very attracted to the non-linearity and intertextuality the Internet has offered us. Icons open and lead into one another and after five minutes of wandering you are a million miles from where you started. Virilio’s screen is frightening, yes, but dizzy with possibilities as well.

In the hyperreal American century, our bodies are suddenly eternal and ethereal at once. I saw a reality show once about who was going to be interesting enough to get a reality show of their own. In sheer terms of semantic madness my favorite reality show title is Paris Hilton’s My New BFF. The final “F” is supposed to stand for “forever” which obviously doesn’t mean what it used to mean if the adjective assigned to it is “new.” One also presumed that if there is to be a second season of the program some conflict will tear Paris and her friend apart; however Hilton solved the problem by shooting the second season of the show in Great Britain. It’s title? My New BBF. You can sort out the acronym. I trust your ability.

And in fact, after his sexist and retro huffing and puffing, Benedict’s real criticism of the re-imagined Starbuck is that things—like Cylons, hamburgers, and Coca-Cola, to use three of Benedict’s examples—do not equal each other anymore. Hamburgers have fewer carbs, Coke has fewer calories, and the Cylons are no longer “alien and evil” but morally complex and conflicted beings. If Benedict’s lament for the simple connection between sign and signified feels like a reactionary throwback, where does that leave one with a resistance to the new possibilities of incorporeal as well as corporeal existence?

Though Hilton, hyperreal though she may be, not only reveals her core selfhood, but does so in a way that only a “reality star” could do. When she was used as an example of dumbness when John McCain used clips of her attacking Barack Obama’s energy policy, Paris created her own video in which she “played herself”—a naïve socialite, sitting poolside with a magazine. But then she flipped the script, outlining what she thought was a sane energy policy, a clearly explained proposal that articulated a third position in contrast to Obama’s and McCain’s. Having proven she could play the policy wonk, she then turned the tables on him again, drawing the discourse back onto her own semantic terms with her pithy warning to McCain and Obama, “See you at the debate, bitches.”

I find that I trust Paris Hilton and Jean Baudrillard equally—precisely because we have entered an age of true gaps and spaces between words and what they mean, the possibilities of poetry have increased a thousand-fold. It’s a dream to me to be lost in the space between a noun and the verb that goes with it, especially if those two are separated by several words or even a poetic line, though so dangerous to think of how separate from real human experience language can be.

In early 2007, I was at the railing of the cliff-beach at Santa Cruz, California. I had just learned the night before of the passing of Alice Coltrane. Shocked and feeling very lonely, I was watching the waves hit the red rocks and disappear instantly into tons of mist. Racing on the surface towards the rocks—who knows how they rescued themselves before striking them—where surfers, balancing on their boards, crazy in the wind. I loved the image of a human being—a soul inhabiting a body—as a surfer traveling on the very edge of the infinite; the joy of their experience was traveling atop it, not immersing themselves in it. One surfs the Internet as well and one feels this most modern of textual conglomerates has much more in common with the ancient forms of literature than we imagine.

Jonathan Rosen writes of the connection between, of all things, the Talmud and the Internet. “Vastness and an uncategorizable nature are in part what define them both…nothing is whole in itself but where icons and text boxes are doorways through which visitors pass into an infinity of cross-referenced texts and conversations.” Rosen goes on to describe the various conversations and arguments that emerge and re-emerge, cross-reference and continue a conversation “that began two thousand years ago” and “is still going on in pretty much unbroken form.”

We haven’t yet begun to explore what it means for our language and our sign-making processes to now have access to such meaning-making mechanisms as website home-pages, blogs, Facebook walls, YouTube, wikis and who knows what other democratic avenues will open themselves into the future. Will we continue to homogenize our language and culture in an as-yet unheard of manner, travel closer and closer to being humans plugged into the Matrix, or mere minds without corporeality simply “downloaded” into our bodies, or will we fracture into fabulous new Babel?

It is not new, this intertextuality, the moving of understanding from one locale to another, but perhaps what is new—and sinister—is the degree to which economic power determines access to new information media. The other problem that presents itself is the problem of “knowing.” While poets—the ones I love anyhow—have always eschewed certainty, the wide prevalence of mass media has only hardened the notion of fixed meanings, not dissolved it. Witness the frightening and soul-sickening ease with which the United States was ushered into the most brutal and disastrously pointless war. Our exit from it and a move back towards the centuries of peace-making that will be required in its aftermath depends solely on our releasing the notion that “we know best,” surrendering—at last!—the doctrine of American Exceptionalism.

Dickinson herself finished with “knowing” in her poem “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” but left that enticing “then” as the single word on the final manuscript line. Dickinson, typically cagey, doesn’t say what happens after “knowing” is finished. At least not right away. Dickinson, that gardener of plants and poems, takes a cutting from this poem and attempts to grow another poem from a variant line reading “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind.” It’s not the only time, of course, she’s subbed in nouns and verbs but left the syntactic structure intact.

Each concerns itself with “knowing”—the first is the narrative of how one dispenses with the requirement to know, the second a lyric that tells what the experience feels like. In another sense “I felt a Cleaving” in my mind is also a meditation on the ability of lyric to revisit its subjects. Dickinson sent the second stanza of this poem in a letter to Susan, though the first couplet in this version does not read “The thought behind I strove to join/unto the thought before,” but rather “the Dust behind I strove to join/unto the Disk before.”

Of course Dickinson was not the only one who subbed words for words in her poems. In the final couplet of the second stanza she writes:

But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.

To me, the word “sound” is key here—meaning progresses from it, the word “ravelling” like the word “cleaving” meaning both a thing and its opposite. It’s this single word also that Dickinson’s editors subbed out for the 1896 edition of her poems, rendering the line instead “But sequence ravelled out of reach/like balls upon a floor.” Something that “ravels out of sound” might at first appear to be a fair definition of the poetry of Joron or Broumas and Begley. Sound, for Dickinson, has echoes of both the sources of poetry and unknowability. In a poem she wrote in between this pair of poems, Dickinson again considers the actual materiality of the mind, first as a metaphor but eventually actualized in a physical form, the chosen form again being “Sound”:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—

In this poem Dickinson compares the Brain to both the sky and the sea; in each case the brain is reckoned superior, not for its mass but for its ability to “contain.” “The Brain is just the weight of God,” Dickinson says, the two hefted physically and found to differ, “if they do” only as much as “Syllable from Sound.” “Syllable” is container by which humans expel the larger and more abstract “Sound.” Led by language, Dickinson does not allow the “funeral” in the brain to be the end, but rather only the beginning of an unreeling sequence of poetic thoughts that comment back, embellish and sometimes contradict what came before.

  1. The human body, as Virilio wrote, is the last frontier, and it’s the experiences of this body, like Pip’s adrift on the surface of the infinite ocean, that can lead us to greater understanding. Joron concludes his poem “Materialism” with these lines: “Possessor, picture/Bare chamber—/    stain instead of identity—//        the plait of, the plaint of//           simple.//Thou thousand, imitation/Shadow.”  The argument he makes here about identity—being traces left behind, a “stain”—plays itself out in the arena of sound. Not only is the individual multiple, but is also barely there, barely real.

So is that it? Does the “transitive body” have any chance of actually existing in the world, understanding itself? For Neo and the others caught in the Matrix it is the simple matter of a pill. Our actual world is perhaps more complicated. There is a rapture in the movement of the mind and the body that can only be duplicated in language, not in spite of the stark gaps that have opened between word and meaning, but perhaps because of it. Subject to colonization, subjugation, invasion on every level, each body has only what it is made of.

The beautiful wisdom of Broumas and Begley’s line corsucates in and out of me as if it were breath: transitive body this fresco amen I mouth. The body here is a “fresco”—the eternal matter painted into the flesh and surface of the body; the paint and the wall are no longer separate but fuse into one another’s actual physical make-up. You can see creation as an alert flickering on your screen: “Someone has written on your wall,” but this line includes two further motions, one of the individual internal—“amen”—and one of the individual actualizing herself into the external world—“I mouth.”


As Dickinson found sequence ravelling out of sound, as Pip noticed in the infinity of space and in the timeless passage of a day and a night adrift, we may find our best spiritual, intellectual and emotional nourishment in the spaces between bodies and their existences, in the conflicted, confused, and vexed spaces of the oral and ecstatic, the profaned and profound, the queer and the difficult. Our very language of the intellect has assumed qualities of the body, and with perhaps our chance to become ourselves, to become human, has increased a thousandfold.

Friend me. Write something on my wall.


Kazim Ali

 Kazim  Ali
Kazim Ali?s most recent book of poetry is The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions). Forthcoming in 2009 are two books, a novel, The Disappearance of Seth, from Etruscan Press, and a prose memoir, Bright Felon, from Wesleyan University Press. Kazim Ali is founding editor of Nightboat Books ( and teaches at Oberlin College and in the Stonecoast MFA program.
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The Resurrection Waltz Book Launch With Murrow
Thursday, MARCH 14th 2013


The Time of The Seasons And The Constellations : T.S. Eliot Dancing at the Still Point; The Dharma and T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets



... I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.


IN THIS PAPER I want to suggest a reading of a number of passages from T. S. Eliot’s long poem, the Four Quartets, in the light of the Dharma, or, to be more accurate, explore the Dharma as expressed by passages within the poem.  This raises the immediate question – why not approach the Dharma directly, rather than through the writings of a non-Buddhist writer?  The answer is twofold; firstly, as great poetry, as a sublime work of art, reading and reflecting on it can in itself have a positive and uplifting effect.  It has a power and beauty that prose can rarely achieve, and hence can at times manage to convey truths to our heart more immediately than abstract philosophy.  And secondly because the poem is part of our Western cultural heritage. Being part of our culture it is perhaps more immediate and accessible than traditional Buddhism can appear, coming from a time and place very different from our own.

The Four Quartets is the last major work of T. S. Eliot, written in his late forties and early fifties.  Most scholars, and Eliot himself, consider the long poem the culmination and crowning achievement of his life’s work.  The first quartet, ‘Burnt Norton’, was written in 1936 as a separate work.  The other three – East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding – were written between 1940 and 1942.  It seems like Eliot’s response to the Second World War raging around him was to want to write more personally, to attempt to express his deepest convictions and intuitions.  Hence he abandoned writing plays and returned to the immediacy of poetry, to expand on the poignant themes he introduced in Burnt Norton.

In this paper I will draw out a few of the themes covered in the poem, although that unfortunately leaves many others unexplored.  If however this article prompts its audience to an appreciative (re) reading of the great poem – an ambitious attempt to bring ‘to expression in language what language doesn’t readily lend itself to’ – then it will have more than served its purpose.


THE FIRST TOPIC that Eliot communicates in the poem will be a familiar one to anyone who knows anything about Buddhism; an exhortation to live in the present moment, rather than the shadow-lands of past and future, what Eliot calls ‘time before and time after’.  Eliot contrasts what he calls the ‘waste sad time/stretching before and after’ with the creative possibilities, beauty and meaning that are accessible to us if we inhabit the present moment.  He graphically evokes the semi-conscious twilight state of being lost in memories of the past, or fantasies about an unreal future.

Here is a place of disaffection

Time before and Time after

In a dim light…

…Only a flicker

Over the strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

Tumid apathy with no concentration

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind

That blows before and after time,

Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs

Time before and time after.

This, unfortunately, is an experience probably all too familiar to meditators, a state without mindfulness or awareness, with the meditator so caught up in distractions he has no vantage point to even realise he is distracted. The mind is without direction or meaning, blown along like litter in the gutter.

Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time

But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future.

Only through time time is conquered.

Being lost in the past or future ‘allows but a little consciousness’, allows but a little mindfulness.  However this is not to say that one cannot recall memories or make plans, but one does so not to escape the present, but to integrate or involve the past or future with the present.  This then requires an awareness of both the experience – in this case vivid memories Eliot frequently comes back to in the poem of a rose garden, or a village church – and an awareness of oneself, in the present moment. This integration leads, Eliot says, to a sense of time being conquered.

The main reason however for being in the present moment for Eliot, more important than the integration of past and future, is the possibility it offers for visionary or insightful experience, what he calls the timeless moment.  He evokes one such visionary experience early on in the poem.  He is walking through the gardens of an old country house (called Burnt Norton).  His whole experience of the garden seems to have been one of heightened awareness, which he associates with the innocence and freshness of childhood.  He has a sense of presence in the garden, and of being in intimate relationship with what he sees, as he walks through the roses; flowers, he says in a lovely line, that ‘have the look of flowers that are looked at’.  On reaching the drained fishponds he has a vision, a vision interestingly enough including a lotus flower.

Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,

And the lotus rose, quietly, quietly,

The surface glittered out of heart of light,

And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.

Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,

Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind

Cannot bear very much reality.

The poet has a momentary vision, a vision of beauty, gentleness and shimmering light, and a sense of interconnection with everything around him.  He re-calls the incident with an adult’s (and poet’s) sensibility, the evocation of the childhood experience suffused by ‘significances outside the range of childhood apprehension.

And then the moment passes with the cloud; he it seems, like ourselves, ‘cannot bear very much reality’.  We are commanded to leave the garden; ‘Go’.  There is a suggestion of failure on the part of human kind.  We cannot, but we should be able to bear reality.  (Perhaps this applies only to adults; are the children laughing at us, with our complex lives and frantic displacement activities?)  Even without visionary experience humankind can find staying in the present moment too intense. Afraid, we plumb for a safer, twilight existence, for something secure, known, albeit only half alive.

the enchainment of past and future

Woven in the weakness of the changing body,

Protects mankind from heaven and damnation

Which flesh cannot endure.

Included in the ‘enchainment of past and future’ is an enchainment to clock time, to planning every minute of one’s day, one’s experience squashed into tight boxes of allotted time. The extremes of heaven and hell are too big for such little boxes of experience. Receptivity to beauty, and the generation of a potentially insightful intensity, is available only outside of clock-time.

F. R. Leavis describes ‘a decided arrest’ when arriving at the line ‘human kind / Cannot bear very much reality’.  It precipitates him into a forthright critique of what he sees as Eliot’s contemptuous attitude towards all things ‘in time’, i.e. all people and their activities, including the creative process.   In this I think the eminent critic is misguided.  Eliot’s contempt is for people living unreal lives, engaged in wilful distraction, who are ‘wasting’ their ‘sad time’.  His exhortation is open to all, and refers to here and now.

Quick now, here, now, always-

Ridiculous the waste sad time

Stretching before and after.



MOVING ON from time past and time future, what does Eliot have to say about thepresent moment?  Here we come to what is, quite rightly, one of the most well known passages in the poem.

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.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

The inner freedom from the practical desire,

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner

And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded

By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving.

‘The still point of the turning world’.  This has connotations of a centre, of a stationary hub within a spinning wheel, a point of stillness at the heart of movement.  The still point is central, poised, balanced, and is also the locus of power.  Here, ‘past and future are gathered’, absorbed into the present.  The second crucial image is ‘the dance’ with its associations of beauty, control, elegance, power and harmony.  Dancing, like meditation, needs concentration but also fluidity, a blend of conscious control and a creative flowing and spontaneity.  ‘At the still point, there the dance is’ – the dance comes from that stillness.  Without it the beauty and poise of the dance would be impossible. ‘And there is only the dance’.  There is only the dance – there is only that which the dance signifies – as only this is of value, of importance.  Only that which comes from this creative and self-aware way of being is of any worth.  To translate this into Sangharakshita’s terminology, only that which comes from the creative mind, imbued with awareness, is of any value.

To understand why the still point, the dance, cannot be ‘placed in time’ we need to look at the next few lines, that state that the dance is a state of freedom from desire and compulsion.  Our experience of time is a product of our craving, our desires.  Time flies – it passes too quickly – when we are enjoying ourselves, when we want to stretch out an experience to last longer than it does.  On the other hand time drags along too slowly when we are bored, when we want an experience finished quicker than is actually happening.  Either way our experience of time is conditioned by our desires, either to hold onto an experience or push it away.  The still point then is timeless in that it has no relation to the future.  It is in the present moment, with no clinging nor rejecting, with no restless desire to be in another place or another time.  Dancing at the Still Point can only take place in the here and now.

The passage uses paradox, similar to that in the Buddhist wisdom texts of the Prajñaapaaramitaa.  The still point is ultimately a state unconstrained by limitations of time and space, so if we try to describe it using the language of time and space, it can only really be talked about negatively, in terms of what it is not.  So it is ‘neither from nor towards’, and ‘neither flesh nor fleshless’, personal or impersonal; none of these dualisms apply.  As already quoted, the subject matter of the Four Quartets ‘required a capacity … for bringing to expression in language what language doesn’t readily lend itself to’.

In this sense the notion of the still point resonates with that of emptiness, ‘suunyutaa, with the ‘open dimension of being’.  Eliot may or may not have had this level of profundity in mind when writing the poem, but that is perhaps unimportant.  There is as it were a ‘vertical alignment’ of mindfulness, and the openness and freedom this gives us, and the fluid and open nature of reality itself, the openness that is the true nature (or non-nature) of ourselves and of all things.  Dancing at the Still Point we dance in Emptiness, ‘surrounded / By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving’.

Eliot uses the language of the still point in a more poetic, image-based passage later on, which concludes

After the kingfisher’s wing

Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still

At the still point of the turning world.


The reference to the kingfisher’s wing and the tight rhythm and assonance of the proceeding section recalls, perhaps deliberately on Eliot’s part, a sonnet by Gerald Manley Hopkins, a sonnet that has relevance to the subject at hand.

As kingfisher’s catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring: like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow strung finds tongue to sing out broad its name:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells:

Selves – goes itself: myself it speaks and spells:

Crying ‘What I do is me: for that I came’.

What Hopkins is saying that has relevance to our consideration of the dance is that everything, poetically speaking, has a ‘nature’ which it cannot help but express.  A stone, hitting another as it tumbles in a river, rings; the electric-blue of a kingfisher’s wing catches the light like fire. And the self of the poet?  It ‘speaks and spells: / Crying ‘what I do is me, for that I came”.  The poet’s raison d’être is to communicate, to speak, spell, proclaim himself.  Likewise we too articulate ourselves, give expression through what we say and do to ourselves, to what is within; we give forth ‘that being indoors each one dwells’.

So, another element of dancing at the still point is self-expression, communication.  With this comes notions of integrity, self-awareness, honesty and truthfulness; seeking the purity and transparency of a stone’s ring.


SO FAR all the quotes from the four Quartets have come from Burnt Norton.  In the later Quartets, which are somewhat more expansive, less philosophically dense, Eliot continues with the broad theme of time and our relationship with it, introducing other types of timethat we can experience.

Firstly there is natural time, the time of nature and the ‘living seasons’.  In the following passage, in a style reminiscent of Ted Hughes, Eliot evokes an ancient pagan marriage ceremony.  Again dancing is mentioned, but this time the connotations of the dance are very different from that seen so far.

Keeping time,

Keeping the rhythm in their dancing

As in their living in the living seasons

The time of the seasons and the constellations

The time of milking and the time of harvest

The time of the coupling of man and woman

And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.

Eating and drinking. Dung and death.

Although the imagery here is fairly positive, Eliot’s response to the pastoral scene is ambivalent.  If we read the poem out loud the insistent rhythm, combined with the earthy language, expresses the claustrophobia and narrowness of living this way – hemmed in by the recurrent cycle of the seasons, and caught up in purely animal concerns.  Feet rise only to fall.  We eat, drink, procreate (like beasts), only to die and rot, even our decomposing bodies caught up in the never-ending, outsideless circle of nature.  Rhythms from the animal realm perhaps.

By contrast Eliot later in the poem uses the ocean as an image for what he calls a ‘ground-swell time’.  This is something primordial, pre-human, unconscious.  He compares it in this passage with the anxious hours spent by women waiting for the return of their fishermen husbands…

…under the oppression of the silent fog

The tolling bell

Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried

Ground swell, a time

Older than the time of chronometers, older

Than time counted by anxious worried women

Lying awake, calculating the future,

Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel

And piece together the past and the future,

And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,


The bell.

To use an image Eliot himself uses, our little lives, rushing around with our little plans and worries, are like waves on the ocean, rising and then falling.  We try in vain ‘to piece together the past and the future’.  Beneath us, within us, part of us, a ground-swell time rolls on unhurried, the chronology of birth and death.  And it’s this time that clangs the bell.

Thirdly there is the aspect of time as an ongoing continual process.

In my beginning is my end.  In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,

Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth

Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,

Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

‘In my beginning is my end’; ends and beginnings Eliot is saying are just our inventions, arbitrary points within a continual process.  If we insist upon positing a beginning then we cannot avoid an end.  There are no real divisions of time, just a constant succession of events, and our splitting up of time into before and after, beginnings and ends, although convenient, is not to be taken too literally, not to be believed in too firmly.  The process of decay and renewal continues seamlessly.  Like the steps of the rustic dancer ‘Houses rise and fall’; the ‘Bone of man and beast’ becomes ‘cornstalk and leaf’.

Beginnings and ends are as arbitrary as divisions as between humus and plant, and the human tendency to ‘nail down’ the flow of perceptions endemic.  Eliot’s alternative is expressed in a superb four lines of text, evoking an almost mystical sympathy and resonance with a fluid world.

Dawn points, and another day

Prepares for heat and silence.  Out at sea the dawn wind

Wrinkles and slides.  I am here,

Or there, or elsewhere.  In my beginning.



WITHIN THE LONG POEM is a singular and quite extraordinary passage, its other-worldly, visionary status matched only perhaps by the fleeting vision in the rose garden.  Leavis calls it ‘Dantesque in its measured gravity and weight’, yet ‘at the same time unmistakably Eliot the great poet – as unquestionably major here as anywhere in hisoeuvre’.

In it Eliot conjures up a sort of underworld purgatorial meeting, between himself (as the first-person narrator) and an alter ego, what he calls a ‘familiar compound ghost’, meeting in an ill-defined twilight world of deserted streets, during an air raid before dawn.  The ghostly figure is in part a ‘ghost of poet-future’, talking to poet-present. ‘The text [however], with its insistent subtlety, forbids simple identification; the alter ego is ‘both one and many’ – A familiar compound ghost / Both intimate and unidentifiable.

The mysterious figures discloses to him the ‘gifts reserved’ for his old age, in order to ‘set a crown’ upon his ‘lifetime’s effort’; a lifetime’s effort to communicate his ideas, ‘to purify the dialect of the tribe’.  Once more the image of the dance reoccurs, without which all is bleak.

The narrator meets a figure

walking, loitering and hurried

As if blown towards me like the metal leaves

Before the urban dawn wind unresisting

A figure

Both intimate and unidentifiable.

… Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,

In concord at this intersection time

Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,

We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.

They converse, culminating in the visitor’s revelations of the gifts of old age, gifts that are harsh indeed;

First, the cold friction of expiring sense

… Second, the conscious impotence of rage

At human folly

… And last, the rending pain of re-enactment

Of all that you have done, and been

He concludes

From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit

Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire

Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.

‘Our future poetry’, writes literary critic G. Wilson Knight ‘must see our city streets tipped with that Pentecostal flame, but those cities will for long be areas heavy with suffering, with darkness, illusion and death.  These themselves must pulse with life; through these we must burn our way, in spite of these know our freedom, because of these create our hope’.  Written ten years before (but read and appreciated by Eliot) Little Gidding, indeed the whole of the Four Quartets, expresses Wilson Knight’s dream, in a war-torn world ‘heavy with suffering’.

In an earlier draft of this passage Eliot makes explicit what is only hinted at in adjoining sections of the poem, that is an awareness of one’s life within the context of death andrebirth, ideas he imbibed through studying Buddhist and Hindu texts. Instead of the ‘gifts reserved for age’ the ghost had originally proclaimed insights to the poet designed to inculcate detachment from those who are most near (and most hated) in this life.

So, as you circumscribe this dreary round,

Shall your life pass from you, with all you hated

And all you loved, the future and the past

United to another past, another future,

(After many seas and after many lands)

The dead and the unborn, who shall be nearer

Than the voices and the faces that were most near.

Eliot however modifies such a non-Christian vision, with the ghost immediately qualifying what he says with the following emphasis on this life.

This is the final gift accorded

One soil, one past, one future, in one place.

Nor shall the eternal thereby be remoter

But nearer; seek or seek not, it is here.

Now, the last love on earth.

The rest is grace.

Whatever Eliot’s reasons for subsequently editing out such passages it is clear that he was strongly influenced by traditional Buddhist and Hindu doctrines, an influence explicit in earlier drafts and implicit in the final version. References to rebirth (whether understood literally or metaphorically) remain, but without the central ghost speech they lose much of their specific meaning.  ‘See now they vanish / The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them / To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern’.  Eliot links such an enlarged context for one’s life, and those of others, into a dharmic framework – as part of a movement towards liberation.  In the section immediately following that of the ‘compound ghost’ he states ‘This is the use of memory: / For liberation – not less of love but expanding / Of love beyond desire, and so liberation / From the future as well as the past’.

Returning to the concluding lines of the ghost’s speech we have the imagery of a ‘refining fire’.  Eliot uses the imagery of fire many times in the poem, especially in Little Gidding.  It seems to be a symbol of spiritual insight, especially that gained through the recognition of suffering and death. The ghost, the ‘dead master’, reveals here another dimension to the dance, (a point made more clearly in the original version of his speech); to ‘move in measure like a dancer’ we must acknowledge the ubiquity of suffering and of death. ‘Despair’, Kierkegaard says, ’ is the secret malady from which all suffer. …The sole difference between men is that some men know from what it is they suffer, whilst others do not’.


FINALLY, and most importantly, there is the theme of spiritual practice itself.  How does one place oneself ‘at the still point of the turning world’?

Firstly, Eliot says, we must turn within, in prayer and meditation.  In contrast to poets such as Hopkins for whom revelation is immanent in the sacramental, rapturous beauty of the world around him, Eliot’s spiritual journey is one of transcendence and renunciation.   ‘I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope..’ So whilst Hopkins can say

I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes

Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Saviour

for Eliot, by contrast, you have to ‘put off / Sense and notion’.  For him the inner journey requires a radical letting go of the world of the senses and sense experience. ‘You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy’.

Descend lower, descend only

Into the world of perpetual solitude…

Desiccation of the world of  sense,

Evacuation of the world of fancy,

Inoperancy of the world of spirit

The nature of such prayer Eliot mentions in a later more ambiguous passage.  As in other passages he uses the imagery of the Pentecost, in this case as a symbol for a communication transcending birth and death.


… prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere.  Never and always.

It is difficult to know quite how to take what is said here, to the idea that one is open in meditation to a communication ‘tongued with fire beyond the language of the living’.  Eliot as a Christian will include a literal meaning to the descent of the Holy Spirit intimated by the tongues of fire, a sense of the grace mentioned at other points of the poem.  This section immediately precedes the ghost scene, with its references to ’ the dead and unborn’ being ‘nearer than the faces that were most near’.  Hence a literal interpretation is possible; that in prayer (and meditation) the dead can communicate to you.  Even outside a Christian or literal context however the words still retain a poetic and evocative power, a broad canvas of death and birth within which one creates oneself in meditation.  Furthermore this state, this ‘intersection of the timeless moment’, is available here and now, although the here and now are thereby transcended.

We now come to the section quoted at the start of this paper, which concludes as follows:

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.

The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,

The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy

Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony

Of death and birth.

Eliot indicates here a state of receptivity, an openness without expectation, and crucially a state of being that includes a profound recognition of suffering, of death and birth.  The fundamental acknowledgement of the facts of birth and death, an openness to the mystery of our life and all life, itself brings illumination, freedom, release.  The darkness (of suffering and not-knowing) becomes the light, becomes that which illuminates our way, and informs our actions, our dancing.  And in this state we can receive the beauty of the timeless moment, symbolised for Eliot by childhood memories, and his vision in the rose garden at Burnt Norton.  Whilst for the older Wordsworth the beauty and transcendent power of nature takes

…a sober colouring from an eye

That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality

Eliot goes one step further.  For him such visionary and timeless experiences associated with childhood, the ‘laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy’, are not only retained in maturity, but require and point to ‘the agony / Of death and birth’.

In the following passage Eliot is at his most explicit regarding the spiritual path, and what he says has much relevance to all practitioners.  He first talks of full Awakening, the apprehension of ‘The point of intersection of the timeless / With time’ as the ‘occupation for the saint’, requiring ‘a lifetime’s death in love, / Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender’.  However such experiences are not for the saint alone; the whole thrust of the poem concerns more everyday insights, revelations, and moments out of time that are accessible to all.

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.  These are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

One of the most radical lines in the whole poem, especially for a poem written by a Christian poet, is ‘The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation’.  Incarnation here deliberately has a capital ‘I’, and refers, in Christian theology to the ‘Word becoming flesh’, the Divine assuming human form in the person of Jesus.  He for Christians represents the abstract Truth (of God) made actual in bodily form, and living amongst us.  What Eliot is saying that has relevance in a Buddhist context, is that our insights and understandings, our moments of vision and absorption, these ‘hints and guesses’, even if only ‘half understood’, these are for us Truth Incarnate.  Truth or Insight he seems to be saying is not some abstract notion, existing on some rarefied plane, but consists of the innumerable small personal insights, intuitions, and revelations that we all have.  Hence we should take them seriously, reflect on them, reverence them even, because they are for us Truth manifest in our life…  And they inform the practice that follows, the ‘prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action’.


THERE IS MUCH that could be said about the poem as ‘music’, as a quartet.  According to Leavis, for whom the musical analogy ‘has a marked felicity’, it gives Eliot licence to ‘defy the criteria we implicitly expect to be observed in… all forms of written English’.  In a musical piece, as in this poem, there are often various melodies and themes which are repeated in various guises throughout, the sections often being linked more closely to the original themes than to an unfolding progression throughout the work.  The themes are brought together in the final movement in a harmonious conclusion.  Eliot does something similar in his concluding passage, weaving together many of the previous themes from the poem;

.   The ability or otherwise of words to adequately describe spiritual experience.  There are many passages in the work where Eliot steps out from behind the text, revealing his struggles to articulate his vision.

·         The co-existence, or the arbitrariness of ends and beginnings

·         The integration of our history into the present moment, giving it depth and significance

·         A state of insight that transcends birth and death, or at least annuls the fear of birth and death; an insight that places the mystery of our life in their context

·         And a recognition that such insight doesn’t occur on some mystical plane, but is accessible here and now, as ‘hints and guesses’.

He also brings together a number of images that are used many times throughout the poem; the yew tree with its associations of graveyards, and hence paganism and death:fire, a symbol for spiritual illumination and transformation, especially through the recognition of suffering: and the rose, symbol of love and beauty.  In this final section Eliot makes his own Holy Trinity, equating the three of them.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

Quick now, here, now, always –

A condition of complete simplicity

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.



The Literary Rogue Returns!


The Literary Rogue Magazine
The Literary Rogue

Because you’re going to have to wait just a few more days for the 2nd

Grand Online Issue Of “THE LITERARY ROGUE”

So in the meantime light up, have a drink and check out our 1st Issue.

No More Love Poems …

No More Love Poems.






Dark-mirrored hallways a dim precision march Here we have tread before Without fear/Well measured Pagan desires and objective Study. Pavlov’s dog is still Breathing, his cigarette falls To the floor and he dances like a manic animal. Lost in the headlights, accidents shall occur once more. There are no excuses left for avatars, no reasons left for men, only lights in the doorways flicker and then they slowly


(to grey) (to grey) (to grey) out.




In the dark we rarely see Images from movies appear

Easy to remain the voyeur

As Bogart stares at Bacall.

Here, are your vampires your child-like apparitions

Yet true monsters are by far better dressed and elusive who,

when asked to be truthful shall lie as they calculate your fate,

look into your eyes and say “Don’t worry, all is well”.

There is something strange about demons,

night holds the key,

we devoured by these realities which someone has named the truth.

And yet, who if asked would pray for a parallel universe?

Would you?

Would God do this after listening to choirs?

So uninspired that he would need to cool off?

This is an impersonation, he is wearing old spice, his

shirt open down to his navel.

Disgusted, we turn away from this sight, a decaying

Casanova hiding in the shadows of his youth.

As night approaches, we, much like our old ancestors,

still stare into the fires and wonder about our lives,

dream of our own private shambalas,

forget, pass the bottle and survive.

But is this all we shall amount to?

When all we know is nothing,

Except this.




When stars fall out of the sky and all lights fade into silence.

When you grow cold Eyes grow old

Touch grows cold

Stars fall out of the sky And lights still fade.

After years After hours After moments

That never mattered

You grow cold

Love grows cold

Eyes grow old

And love fails..falls,

Fucked up and silent

Foolish and waiting In the corner.

When the universe mo longer

Yields to your commands

When the mirror finally breaks

And all you are left with is glass

You grow old touch grows cold eyes grow old

And all of the stars still

Fall out of the sky

It’s time for the last call.





She said;

“If you ever tell me that you love me I’m afraid that I’ll have to leave.”

So not wanting to ever lose her he bent down, got close and softly whispered in her ear,



no more love poems no more love poems for the tainted and the dead, the wounded & the love-lorn, the fallen & the fled. no poems for Maria, no poems for Faith, no poems for Madonna, no poems for hate, no poems for Jennifer, no poems for life, no poems for the desperate, no poems for their wives. no poems for Lilith, no poems for smiles, and no poems for the goddesses who’ve fucked up my life. no poems for Jesus no poems for Christ no poems for his father no poems for Pilot. no poems for Sinatra no poems for style, no poems are in fashion no poems are worthwhile. no poems for heroes no poems for liars no poems for icons, and no poems for wine. no poems for love songs, no love songs for crimes, no saints for any sinners, no redemption through eyes. no soul in my pocket no soul in my bed, no more love poems for poets no more poetry for head. no love in the kitchen no love in the den no love in the living room and no love poems ever left in this lonely house, on the side of the road, in the backstreets or in the alleyways allover the world. no more love poems, no more and yet we still live, going on & on & on and wondering who loves and who gives and who this stupid man is who keeps writing all of these foolish love poems for “her”

R.M. Engelhardt Copyright 2005.