April 12, 2016

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Source Poems: "Little Gidding"

For National Poetry Month 2014, I have invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about source poems. In this series of essays, each writer will describe a single poem's significance in his or her life.

Welcome, Poetry Friday readers! My limerick challenge nemesis, Michelle Heidenrich Barnes, is hosting all of the Poetry Friday links today. Michelle's also celebrating her blog birthday at Today's Little Ditty. Head over there to help Michelle blow out those birthday candles.

Our guest blogger for today's source poem is author Mary Bargteil.

Mary Bargteil

For more decades than I care to confess, I have carried T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets with me. A dog-eared paperback published in 1971 pockmarked with my annotations. People who knew me well did not ask me to swear on a bible but rather on my copy of Four Quartets. Of course, it is too vast, too dense, and no doubt some will think pretentious, to address the Four Quartets here. Believe this, I am not pretentious.

The work is simultaneously daunting and transparent to me; transparent when Eliot and I share similar reference points; daunting when all the history and symbolism of the time when it was written is unpacked. What is Eliot’s intent? What is the hidden meaning? Let’s examine the literary criticism so we can understand.

Just kidding! That exercise would not mean it was a source poem. The author’s intent is no more relevant to me than daVinci’s intention when he painted the Mona Lisa. A source poem is one that can follow me through the whole of my life; meaning that will evolve and reveal as my own understanding changes – regardless of studying it in a seminar.

I choose the final quartet, "Little Gidding" as my source, even though the entire text put meaningful definition to a rather disparate life and continues to do so regardless of Eliot’s intent. T. S. Eliot is to poetry what Virginia Woolf is to prose; it is best, at times, to just stay in the moment with the poem and let the imagery and repetition wash over you. Over time, you develop an ear for it. 

Many only associate “Little Gidding” with section V, but it is just a tip of the iceberg . The imagery from the earlier quartets is repeated here and throughout sections I through IV. When I look at my work -- and my life -- with question, this is where I go.

You can hear T. S. Eliot read all of Little Gidding here. Here are the final two stanzas.

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
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
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
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Yes, “costing nothing less than everything." Artists understand the cost of pursuing art. "A condition of complete simplicity" is so challenging to the convolutions where we find ourselves in creating the work. I find I cannot create when I most wish to be clever rather than true, unvarnished. We are always exploring, excavating the same ground and finding “garlic and sapphires in the mud” – and the echoes of all of our past and all the pasts we can know and the future that we can imagine slip into the ink.

So I am not here to analyze or speak to the brilliance of the Eliot’s work but only to recognize the voice that resonates, the ever-arriving of discovery, the hidden waterfall where we froth language and thought and create a crowned knot of fire. The unremembered gate will open when we are 28 and 37 and 45 and 57 and on and on and as poets, we will keep finding ourselves, all of our selves present.

I can half hear you now. I can half hear my children, my mother, my siblings, always present and gone, and the scent of those I’ve yet to encounter leaning in. Eliot gave me this perception – gives me this perception. It is the longest river to mine. 

T.S. Eliot

Mary Bargteil, an office manager by day and an adjunct associate professor at night, is published in short story, novella, and poetry.  Graduated summa cum laude with a M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Publication Arts, her poetry has appeared in  Gargoyle, The Light Ekphrastic, Scribble, Welter, Brown Bag Literary Magazine, Scorched Earth, and Octopus Dreams. She hopes to move to Guatemala someday and establish the Madhatter School of Writing and Book Design. Till then, she resides in Arnold, Maryland, with her dog and kayak. She writes about writing, teaching, social media, and her adventures on two blogs: and


Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Mary recognizes Eliot's voice beautifully in this post. One thing that I find so fascinating about this series, Laura, is the variety of different voices we are being introduced to. It's quite wonderful, really.

Robyn Hood Black said...

What a wonderful way to start the day - Many thanks, Mary (& Laura) for adding dollops of grace and wonder to my morning coffee.
"The unremembered gate will open when we are 28 and 37 and 45 and 57 and on and on and as poets, we will keep finding ourselves, all of our selves present" - yes, yes, yes.
And to find Julian of Norwich in this Eliot passage: "All shall be well..." - I'll carry all of this around in my heart today.

Linda B said...

I haven't read this for a long time, have become more embroiled in children's lit, so wonder at "Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." and your words, quoted above too, as we move from age to age and find both new and same are true for me. What a wonderful thing to profess such love for someone's words. Thanks Mary, and Laura too!

Tabatha said...

This is a post to be savored! I will be back.

BJ Lee said...

I adore Eliot! Thanks for the little snippet from Little Giddung. His work is profound and has had a profound affect on your life as a poet that's clear!t

Heidi Mordhorst said...

I admit it: I have avoided TS Eliot (except for the cats) since I met him in high school and did not find the playful wallowing in language that I delighted in with e.e. and Gerard Manley. Mary reminds us what a true source feels like (and perhaps why I could not be reached by this one at 16):
"What is Eliot’s intent? What is the hidden meaning? Let’s examine the literary criticism so we can understand. Just kidding! That exercise would not mean it was a source poem."
But here Mary brings him straight to my aging philosopher's heart, and I too am off to order Four Quartets. The passage she chose is LITERALLY a source poem, isn't it!

Just Mary said...

Thank you for the wonderful comments. Deciding on a "source" poem is no small feat in that we finds our sources in so many places. I am thrilled that this post has encouraged so many to revisit the Four Quartets!

Author Amok said...

Heidi and all -- I had a wonderful (goofy, brilliant) English teacher in college. Among the texts he acted out: the Canterbury Tales (he was great as the Wife of Bath, complete with blonde mop wig)and parts Eliot's "The Wasteland." I've been fond of Eliot and the layering in his poems ever since. The power of a great teacher.

GatheringBooks said...

I have always been in love with TS Eliot and his words. These are lines that one will forever go back to and discover something new each time, I agree with that unreservedly. The vision of Eliot's Four Quartets being carried everywhere like a well-kept and well-mined secret is too beautiful. Thank you for reminding us of life's truths as painted by Eliot, Laura and Mary.