“It is impossible to say just what I mean!”

I don’t think I was really fully aware of how difficult it was for T.S. Eliot to write before I read this biography. I knew that he was not the most prolific writer, but imagine writing a poem, a really good poem, and then waiting years and years believing that this was the last poem you’d ever written, and that you’d never be able to write again? I am no poet, so I can only imagine, and the fact that Eliot wrote relatively little is telling in and of itself. One of my friends is thinking about a project focusing on poetry that is about poetry or the writing process in general, and I thought of Eliot’s last poem sequence, the Four Quartets.

From “Burnt Norton”:

… Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Here is the frustration of a man who sees words under a great “burden” in the attempt to articulate something.

In this section from “East Coker”, the poet seems to be writing, or “musing out loud” about the preceding passage, much as someone would look at something they’d done and judge the measure of it.

That was a way of putting it–not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter
It was not (to start again) what one had expected.

“I suppose that was not very good.” He leaves it where it is. And again from the same poem:

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 wholly 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 how should I begin?”

It had, after all, been twenty years since the Waste Land. The difference in theme between that poem’s quest to this reflects Eliot’s own spiritual journey, from the Waste Land‘s struggle to articulate the absence of moral or spiritual foundation in the world, to the Four Quartet‘s struggle to articulate a quest’s discovery. Each poem is a different “attempt” or “beginning” at using words to express the un-expressable, a “raid on the inarticulate.” Maybe the struggle to begin evokes (maybe unintentionally) “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 30 years prior, with Prufrock’s inability to articulate his feelings. “It is impossible to say just what I mean!” This act of beginning is tantamount to the impossible, rather like biting off the overwhelming question with a smile, or squeezing the universe into a ball. It can’t be done. However, years later, Eliot has come to the realization that he can make a beginning, and “in my beginning is my end.”

And finally, from “Little Gidding”, Eliot writes as someone who sees that though words may be inadequate, they still have a usefulness. For the poet there is a certain beauty in the struggle to construct, much like a dance.

… And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.

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Comments
One Response to ““It is impossible to say just what I mean!””
  1. michael says:

    Beautiful. I never knew that about T. S. Eliot.

    I agree wholly with the notion that beginnings are hard, and that, sometimes, in order to write the ‘right’ start to a story–that is, one that feels most at home in light of the story as a whole–one must know the end first. And I certainly think when beginnings and endings are connected by an author’s words or ambiguous suggestions, it adds a very satisfying feel to the story overall.

    I’ll tell you what someone once told me:
    You’ve a smart head on your shoulders! Don’t lose it! But, if you must, make sure it’s in a beautiful place when you find it again. 🙂

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