Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
Skillfully crafted words can provide comfort, perspective, or promote discussion. During times of crisis (and 2020 will be recorded as a such a time), it is a luxury to have such words at our disposal. Some will say that crisis can be the catalyst for an author’s best work. It has been referenced that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra during periods of societal upheaval caused by the bubonic plague and an assassination attempt on King James. The crafted words of poetry, more now than ever, are important, impactful and necessary for the healing processes that we all must go through — medically, emotionally, socially.
I was inspired to read the poetry of T.S. Eliot as the next Nobel Literature Laureate, not because of the multitude of crises we as humans are navigating, but because of a donation of more than 1000 letters shared between Eliot and his muse, Emily Hale. Emily Hale donated the letters written between the years 1930 and 1957 to Princeton University where they remained in their good hands until the letters were reopened in January of this year. What an opportunity to peek behind the curtain and learn of the times, the relationship, and Eliot’s intimate thought process. Like the Easter Eggs hidden in movies, the letters reveal clues to references in Eliot’s poems. The choice of The Waste Land to read was driven by the observation made by the Eliot scholar, Frances Dickey, upon reading the correspondence between the two, that Hale inspired the hyacinth girl in The Waste Land:
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
— Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.
Learning that Eliot penned The Waste Land during a period of personal difficulty for the poet only added to the equation of crisis and crafted words.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry.” Eliot was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri and proclaimed: “It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.” He began the poetic pursuit as a teenager influenced by Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. None of these early works survived Eliot’s self-criticism and were destroyed. Only the published result of a school exercise survived as an early example of his work. Eliot experienced several institutes of higher learning in several countries due to his studies and work opportunities. He wrote to a colleague that he “hated university towns and university people,” yet he spent time in the teaching profession while writing and editing. Later in life he would abandon the United States for British citizenship: “My mind may be American, but my heart is British.”
Emily Hale’s letters will add dimension to all the current biographical sketches on T.S. Eliot — much to his chagrin. When learning that she had denied his request to burn the letters he wrote a “rebuttal,” if you will, that adds another twist for all who read the letters to interpret: “I came to see that my love for Emily was the love of a ghost for a ghost” — in essence denying the love he once felt for his muse. Navigating the conundrum created by Hale’s letters seems a grand opportunity for the world of Eliot poetic scholars. They will spend many a moment in those 1000+ letters dissecting every word and drawing conclusions. The pandemic has created the time for such a reflection.
Time created by the pandemic can be viewed as a luxury. However, not everyone can afford such a luxury. For most the chaos created by the pandemic would be enough for the world to navigate, but this pandemic chaos has been punctuated with other horrors, questions of police procedure and riots in multiple cities. The arrival in the mail of two new works of poetry by local authors was another opportunity to view more crafted words in order to process this continued assault on society’s ability to breathe.
The Birth of All Things by Marcus Amaker, poet laureate for the City of Charleston and Notes for 1619 by Horace Mungin, founder of Black Forum Magazine give the reader a window into the African-American experience and may just provide a map to navigate these crises. Mungin inscribed his book to me with “I know we can’t read ourselves out of this mess but reading may point the way” — gentle, graceful and lovely words. Poetic and on point. Continue reading and let’s find the way.