Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
One of the most remarkable things about reading Eliot is how modern his poetry is. You have to remind yourself every now and then that these poems are over a hundred years old. Remarkable.
What I love about masterful poetry (which is also true of any masterful text, complex in ideas and language like science, philosophy, etc) is that it is not for everyone but also that it is open to anyone. It commands your attention to understand it, appreciate it, and love it, while never making itself exclusive. If we are not paying attention, if we are unwilling or fail in trying to follow the labyrinthine complexities of its language, we see it as vague, abstract, artsy, and snarky, and we ourselves turn snarky because of it, refusing it (besides, there are now a hundred million million other things to be doing. Go to bed, old man).
One must prepare oneself to read great works of art and science. I love that. The treasure is there, but first we must get provisions, prepare, and be confident at the task at hand.
Here: I give Eliot’s ‘Preludes’ to the coffee shop girl to read. She puts the butter knife down but not her phone. She will squint and nod and give the book back to me, while moving back with her friend, wearing that expression of faint pity, perhaps more to the gesture lost rather to me gesturing. I nod and smile and wait for her heart to explode just as mine has after reading it. But it doesn’t, it’s not supposed to. You can’t be inspired unless you want to be. This doesn’t work with film or paintings or especially music. If I put on a song that is beautifully sad, once her mind connects the notes with her heart, her face will go slack and she’ll inevitably look out the window. She may even cry. Writing is anything but this. Writing uses our minds, it makes dreams in our heads we watch and smell and feel and experience. Only in a dream can we be ourselves while simultaneously seeing ourselves. Only in a dream can we recognize that our best friend was jumping into the air in slow motion but that we’d never actually seen his face to verify him, we simply felt him. This is why readers are the best fans in the world. It’s like we’ve met people who’ve dreamt the same things we’ve dreamt but which is also unique only for us. A great work of writing lives through us. The rest of the arts are whores to our senses, tantalizing us, seducing us, pulling us this way and that. Only writing loves us. But we must engage it just as it engages us.
You must have the right mindset and the right heartset to properly engage in poetry, philosophy, literature, treatises, and any other kinds of thought-provoking writing. In fact, right there, that word—thought-provoking—sums it all up. These things provoke you to know it, understand it, and therefore love it. To ‘get it’. And then, next, to ‘get it’. And then, finally, to ‘get it’.