September 26 marks the poet T.S. Eliot’s birthday. One of my favorite quotes by Eliot is not from a poem, but rather from his explanation that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
When I taught in the classroom, I would use this quote to explain why the same poem could be shared and enjoyed by different levels of readers. I would use this quote to spark discussion when students were convinced that there was a “correct” answer in making a response to a poem. That meant, I would use his quote when I would teach his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I would use a recording of Eliot reading the poem; they would follow along on the page. Eight and half minutes later, they would look up, perplexed.
“What does this poem mean? “they would ask.
“What did you understand? “I would counter. There would be a long pause, and I would say, “Don’t worry, poetry communicates before it is understood.”
The one section of this great modern poem that my students did feel comfortable understanding was the third stanza that describes the setting for J. Alfred Prufrock’s evening walk:
“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.”
That stanza is a wonderful description of the soft October nights to come. My students enjoyed the figurative language in these lines as opposed to trying to decipher the literary allusions to Michelangelo, Hamlet, scuttling crabs and mermaids. “Why would anyone dare to eat a peach?” they would wonder.
“But, did you like the poem?” I would finally ask.
“Maybe,” they would respond, “but we don’t understand it all.”
“That’s okay, you don’t need to. He is communicating to you.
Here, you can listen to Eliot read this poem. Yes, it’s a little lengthy (8:32 min), but be patient… he’s communicating before being understood.
Happy Birthday, T.S. Eliot! Continue reading