I confess that when it comes to poetry I am a beer-drinker and not a wine-sipper. Not that I partake of either drink: beer makes me sick, and good wine is wasted on me because I have not been schooled in its pleasures. But I like my poetry accessible --- artful, thoughtful, and yet written in language I can understand. Like beer, my poetry is that of the common man.
In this regard, the fine wine of T.S. Eliot's poetry fails me or, rather, I fail it For example, it's well nigh impossible to understand the literary allusions his The Four Quartets makes without a serious grounding in literature and language. I haven't the background nor patience. And yet I cannot deny the sound of his work, like the cry of meaningless that comes through The Hollow Men: "This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper." We just fade away, he seems to be saying.
William Edgar, a Fellow of The Trinity Forum, offers a helpful analysis of Elliot's poetry in an article in TTF's online journal, Provocations, entitled "Shoring Up the Fragments: Thoughts on T.S. Eliot's Poetry." Edgar actually knows what the poet means. I don't, and yet I love to ponder such lines, and listen to such sounds, as one may find in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: "Let us go then, you and I,/ Where the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table . . ." I have no idea what that means (and neither did his critic, C.S. Lewis, profess to), but I love the sound of it. I even love the sound of the title. Who wouldn't want to meet a guy named J.Alfred Prufrock, to find out what he looks like, how he thinks?
Quite beyond the content of poetry (which is not to be ignored), I know the sound of the words speaks to the soul, resonates with something God has placed in us. Edgar says it this way:
Poetry is about crafting words. It is not data, but lyrical, imaginative verbal invention. Unlike other art forms, even creative prose, poetry addresses the soul at its very source, at the place where language intermingles with deepest consciousness, with God’s own image.
Poetry, like music, is a performance, not just a message. At times it resembles prayer. Poetry, as John Ciardi puts it, is “the natural language of man’s most exalted thoughts.” To accomplish that, “the essence of a poem is that one thing in it requires another . . . The poem, that is, is forever generating its own context. Like a piece of music, it exists as self-entering, self-generating, self-complicating, self resolving form.”
In fact, Edgar compares Eliot's poetry (and, by extension, all good poetry) to a symphony:
At first, his many quotations and references seem almost distracting. Then after reading and rereading the text, and reciting it out loud, we begin to hear, as it were, the work as a whole. If one takes the trouble to decode the references and translate the quotes, then the many parts begin to cohere. Like the great symphony, non-musicians can enjoy it and perhaps hum the melodies. The learned music scholar will hear all the nuances, the different instruments, the cross-references, the historic roots, and the whole will be all the more meaningful.
We might even speak of the perspicuity of poetry, its clarity in some essence for the simple-minded, the uneducated (like me), its ability to offer something to the unschooled as well as the scholar. In fact, if a poem can't do that, it's elitist and not much good for culture as a whole. I may not understand the multi-layered meanings of The Waste Land, but reading it over and over again, aloud, I feel its essence in my soul, dimly hear the music of a symphony though I'm more attuned to mere rock and roll. The analogy is inferior, but it's like the perspicuity of the Gospel: clear enough to lead even the dim-witted to Christ, and yet full of unfathomable riches for the Edgars of this world; clear enough to offer me something of its meaning, to evoke feeling, and yet richly layered enough to offer much more than that to the learned reader.
It's enough to make me take to drink --- your best wine, please.