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.
–Excerpt from East Coker V, Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot
In What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, Robert Hass writes about this poem by T. S. Eliot and the difficulty in teaching students about poetry:
One of the traditional ways of teaching poetry is to discuss, to explicate, what Eliot is saying here to make sure that students (and the teacher) understand what’s being said…in teaching poetry, that is quite often what we settle for. We hope that the deeper thing that we can’t communicate has gotten communicated, passed directly from the poem to the student reader without our aid or interference. We do what we can with content, especially if, as in this case, the content is rich, psychologically or philosophically. And we do what we can, harder but still manageable, with affect. And we leave the deeper thing in the work of art, which is also famously the most ineffable, its tone or mood, which is like a sensation of echo, which we often take away quite mutely and quietly, in the same way that people do coming out of a concert hall or theater. In those deepest reaches of a work of art, the truth is what we mostly cannot teach.
Hass goes on to talk about the possibility of teaching echoes. As Eliot has said elsewhere, the past is “modified in the guts of the living” much the way a new work of art emerges from an old one. Like the lives we construct for ourselves from our experiences, our work and our relationships, the sensation of echo is ongoing and sometimes as close as we can get to our own deeper thing.
This feels particularly resonant for me this morning. This weekend is the fifth anniversary of the passing of Morris Arrari, a dear friend to many of us. A group of us are gathering in New York City to remember him. In thinking about Morris more than usual, I was reminded of these words delivered at his memorial service by Andrew Kimball:
Morris said once he would choose to return to earth — should that be our destiny — as a bird, high above hospital rooms, stomas, the gracelessness of ordinary manners — his artist’s eye quickened by the earth’s spiny geology, its interlocking clays and ores, its patterned waterways, the play of shadow across the landscape – observed this time from a distance.
The sensation of echo, the ineffable deeper thing—these are concepts that don’t translate easily into words. But remembering this wish for an ambient presence brought me closer to that unsaidness.