Monday Poem: “East Coker” (Part V) by T. S. Eliot

I have often found that, of all the poets I have read and loved, T. S. Eliot understands me the best. In particular, the way he writes about writing speaks to me a great deal, so I thought it fitting to include this section of “East Coker” as this week’s poem.

East Coker by T. S. Eliot


So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholy new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

You can read the whole poem here.

Taking it from the beginning, what I get from this (segment of) poem is a sense of frustration that I think every writer feels at some point; the feeling that there is simply no way anything you write could ever be as good – as well written, as original – as those authors you admire. However – and this is the part that soothes – Eliot reminds us that it’s not a competition. We’re all trying to achieve the same thing, and our part in the cycle is completed in our attempts to do so. This theme seems to be continued in the second stanza; we start from home, a familiar place, and things grow stranger and more complicated as we encounter the unknown – we are all new creatures in a very old world no matter our actual age. But here and now and here or there don’t really matter; we must keep going, and (as he says elsewhere), we will know when we have reached our destination because “the end of all our exploring/will be to arrive where we started/and know the place for the first time.”

I don’t claim to fully understand all of his poetry, but I do enjoy the way it makes me think and feel!

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