I was reminded by several people (and the Writer’s Almanac) that today is T.S. Eliot’s birthday. T. S. Eliot was one of my first loves as a forming poet.

Some of the other recent blog posts put me in mind of this. I remember staying at my grandfather’s (my mother’s father) house in Louisville, Kentucky. He was an Episcopal priest, and his library consisted largely of theological, political and philosophical works, all very large and grim looking to a child (“and what is the point of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations”), and off limits besides.
But once I had exhausted the books in the nursery—mostly collections of Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm's fairy tales, poetry of another kind--I was always looking for something to read to while away long hours punctuated by chiming clocks, nap times, and the evening news, in an adult world where my sister and I were always encouraged to find something quiet to do. I loved poems—or at least the poems I knew from children’s anthologies, and I loved cats, so I suppose someone handed me The Complete Poems and Plays of Eliot (what other modern poet would be more welcome in an Episcopal clergyman’s house?), and pointed out the “Book of Practical Cats” with its whimsical Edward Lear-ish ditties (“How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!”)
But having read that, I remember flipping at random through the book—the very volume, by the way, I am currently holding in my hand—and I shall always vividly remember coming across this passage from the Waste Land:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
I didn’t know what it meant—in the sense that I didn’t have a context for it. I doubt I knew what a cistern was. (I'm not sure how old I was--8, 9, 10, 11?) But it wasn’t obscure on any linguistic level. The words leapt into the ear and the mouth, and, with that narrative past tense, the passage’s simple, factual unfolding--“A woman drew her long black hair out tight”--and with its creepy images, could almost have been torn out of a dark fairy tale of Sea Witches and Swamp Kings. Later I would discover mermaids singing each to each.
Poetry books too, I realized, were, in their own way, full of pictures and conversations.

Originally Published: September 26th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. September 27, 2007

    I absolutely love the way you talk about poetry and its relevance to thought, creativity, and, indeed, curiosity. A few of my students (whom I've been forcing to read this blog) have been getting such an insightful education from your posts. As have I. Thank you!