White Board for Week 2 Poetry and Being: Discussions on R.S. Thomas, Mary Oliver and T.S. Eliot


Responses to general introduction:

John– wondering whether poetry, like in music, uses pauses to create and capture meaning?

Jonathan…. That’s why poetry breaks into lines. There is athe  mental pause at end of each line which has a similar function.

Michael- also the stanza/verse structure of many poems can operate in a similar way. However there are important differences: the musician, or composer create an actual pause which can be pregnant with meaning. In poetry the reader has to create these pauses or respond to some possible cues in the text.

Colleen… in poetry breath is also really important, the breathing in, the sighing out… all these are important in the way poetry conveys its meaning and its emotional feeling.

Pauline…. On Nourbese Philip….Deeply moved, even shocked by this poem. The whole idea of the erosion of language (African, European etc) is something that many have become aware of  because of the colonial dominance of universal English. This poem creates a deepening experience of Being… & a new understanding and liberation. The content this poem is fantastic….

Andrew…. Would like us to include T.S. Eliot in our discussions. He is a poet for whom we need much help.

Discussion of particular poems:

Poem 1/ R.S. Thomas….. But the silence of the mind…. See video clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8v-uc-DI7g&t=5s

Jock… our group approached this poem as an echo of our own personal experience as an aid to our going deeper, whether we are meditators or not; ….. flow of the poem brought us to a stiller place… deep within each is the deep within God…

Jonathon offered the comment that reading the poem itself was actually like going through a meditation, being moved beyond our formatory, habitual thought processes.

Marie… thought that the ongoing and deepening search dramatized in the poem was rung/enacted through the biblical (Psalms) image of “the deep calling to the deep” . This helped to bring the reader to the experience of  stillness. The imagery of the ocean permeated the first stanza, from which was launched the armada of our thought,  never arriving at fullness.  The search is in the stillness.

Michael-  perhaps the “never arriving” refers to the fact that our thoughts can never take us to the depth of experience encountered in complete stillness.

Martin… the imager of depths and margin can be illuminated by the analogy of  when we go swimming or diving, into the depths, where we are reaching our limit. That’s were language disappears and that is where the other senses open out,  and that is where God can be met…

Michael This is a really important emphasis on the place of the body in spiritual experience. Spiritual experience is in fact profoundly embodied, as this poem seems to describe it.

Colleen…. scuba diving is a powerful analogy. It is also worth noting that the word “we” brings the reader directly into the poem. This is one of the features of its language.

Jonathan…  The poem dramatizes how the totality of our Being is drawn into the quiet and the stillness. The mind is an obstacle in this process.

Michael.   What is being described here is very close to what the Aborigines refer to as Dadirri, or “deep inner listening”. There is a real connection to this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tow2tR_ezL8

Margaret. There is the sense of inner presence created in this poem. It is a deep, deep ocean transcending our own space and time…

Marie– first stanza is a contemplative moment, while the second stanza expands the  consciousness of our experience; it is shrunken but it expands; it is set within bounds but them extends them…

Poem 2 Mary Oliver “When Death Comes”….

How does the poem impact its reader with the underlying experience??? Images? Challenging attitudes?

Greg – We read this poem as 3 parts: part 1 – bleak,  death; part 2 -transition beautifully steps through the door of curiosity into  “darkness”. Curiosity might be a surprise. The next few stanzas talk about brotherhood and sisterhood & the singular daisy; everything, because of diversity, is the way it is. An anaology for this is the  Uni/ verse/ Everything isunited as a verse,  as one sound, or one symphony in which every person is a note in the symphony.  And then the last part is about participating in the world and not being just a visitor. She also brings silence into it; her music in the poem moves towards silence, which is also equal to the fullness of life, the participation in everything, which is also an invitation to silence.

Michael– Greg you have the basis here for your own poem about the nature of the universe: go for it! Some wonderful images….

Pauline…. fun discussion in our group started with the bride and a bridegroom…. Perhaps these represent Slightly different ways of looking at the world.

Bride might be saying stop and look while  the groom wants to take action;  how this duality often plays out in a relationship. Does the end of the poem offer these two opposite points of view? Does it mean at the end I just want to Just be, or do I want to work through a certain process of action?

John…. There is a famous Brazilian pianist Margaret Argerich who plays so brilliantly she plays as a little child, with amazement, wonder and passion. Does she have the same qualities that Oliver suggests the bride has? And where does the bridegroom fit into this?

Carolyn– This is a deeply personal poem. She uses the 1st person and she is really bearing herself open. Compared to R.S. Thomas’s  prayerful poem in Mary Oliver, she is talking directlyt about death. And she is also a nature poet.  She is also completely  giving a faireness to brotherhood and sisterhood,  looking at both sides of the experience…

Andrew: step through the door of curiosity into the cottage of darknes. I  loved that line: the idea of being curious about death puts a positive spin; like yin and yang-  female darkness and male light.

Janet… the very last line is so important:  simply having visited this world. But she is seeing with understanding, with the depth of the poet’s gaze.

Poem 3 T.S. Eliot Little Gidding

Vic…. It is important to stress that there is no “I”; the poem is  leaning toward a universal voice. I Loved the line about exploration…

Andrew…. Very wordy… hard to interpret… but it arouses curiosity… it seems intellectuall requiring study… so what is the process of getting towards understanding him.

Michael  gave an extended response to Andrew’s question which you can find in the recording for this session. See below for details.  

Margaret…. There are many allusions to other texts in this poem, for example to Coleridge‘s “Kublah Khan

This led to an extensive discussion on the use by poets of intertextual allusions…

Please find a recording of T.S. Eliot reading “Little Gidding” here:

See recording for more details.

Please find some additional notes on Little Gidding right here:

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

“Little Gidding”- from Section II

                             Line numbers

Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,           75
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit                    80
As body and soul begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment               85
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.         90
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,                       95
And faded on the blowing of the horn.

Notes on these lines…

Line 73. Eliot was asked “Do you think that the poet can concern himself just with his own feelings? Has he not a responsibility for his country, humanity etc?” Eliot’s reply “His responsibility is towards the language… to prevent the language from deteriorating.  The phrase “To purify the dialect of the tribe” is a quote from Mallarmé.

Line 85 “the rending pain of re-enactment”. This is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his character Kurtz: “Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation , and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?”

Line 92 “that refining fire… like a dancer”. Eliot comments to a friend “The reference to swimming in fire which you will remember at the end of Dante’s Purgatoria 26 where the poets are found. The active co-operation is, I think, sound theology and is certainly sound Dante, because the people who talk to him at that point are represented as not wanting to waste time in conversation  but wishing to dive back into the fire to accomplish the expiation.”  Another comment from TSE “When I read poetry I put myself into a kind of trance and move in rhythm to the rhythm of the piece in question.”

from Section V

With the drawing of this love and the voice of this Calling.               25

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate                                    30
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree                                                     35

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity                                                     40
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire                                                             45
And the fire and the rose are one.

Notes on these lines…

Line 25 from The Cloud of Unknowing Ch 2 “What weary wretched heart and sleeping in sloth is that, the which is not wakened with the drawing of this love and the voice of this calling? “ and Ch 9 “ therefore lift up thy love to that cloud. Or rather (if I shall say thee sooth) let God draw thy love up to that cloud; and strive thou through help of its grace to forget all other things” – this line scored in TSE’s copy of  The Cloud.

Lines 31-32:  Matthew 20:16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”

Lines 34 The voice… And the children in the apple tree “a recollection of the poet’s childhood… “

Liune 40 “complete simplicity”  Eliot wrote in essay The Post-Georgians: “ Great simplicity is only won by an intense moment or by years of intelligent effort, or both. It represents one of the most arduous conquests of the human spirit: the triumph of feeling and thought over the natural sin of language.”

Line 44 – a reference to the last Canto of Dante’s Commedia in Paradiso XXXIII 85-93 : “Within its depths I saw ingathered, bound by love in one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe; substance and accidents and their relations, as though together fused, after such fashion  that what I tell of is one simple flame. The universal form of this complex I think that I beheld, because more largely, as I say this, I fell that I rejoice.”

Line 42 direct quote from Julian of Norwich in her book Revelations of Divine Love in which Jesus answered her with the words “ ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’ … This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else.”

Line 44 crowned knot of fire. The Cloud of Unknowing ch. 47 “knit the ghostly knot of burning love betwixt thee and they God, in ghostly onehead and according of will.”

Please find the recording for today’s lecture at the following link:

Passcode: 193235

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