Saturday, June 14, 2014

Meditations in Fast Times: Introduction

“Meditations in Fast Times” was a devotional writing experiment I took up for the Season of Lent in the year 2014. Each day during the season, I wrote a poem as a meditation, using as my inspiration and intertextual basis, T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, as well as incorporating the daily office, current events, and other readings—some the same as those Eliot used while composing this seminal work and other writing.

The truth about words is that they accumulate through time, first in the mind, then as markings on clay tablets, then on papyrus, palm leaves, amalgamations of plant fibers, parchment, vellum, then wood pulp. Words fill scrolls, palimpsests, books, and electronic storage units. The more basic truth about words is that their accumulation constitutes the collective memory of our species, for better and for worse. To the extent that we collect and care for our accumulations of words, they are our children. Words are also ancestors, parents and teachers to us; we interact with words in our nightly dreams and in our daily lives, we share words with one another. Words do not live by themselves; they live because someone remembers them, references them, ponders them, speaks them, exchanges them, agrees with them and lives by them, or disagrees and rearranges them to something that could be lived by in a proper context.

This last notion is vitally important, particularly in this “digital media era”, in which ownership of words (and everything else), is constantly at issue. Perhaps the most difficult aspect toward an understanding about accumulations of words is that they can constitute unique thoughts, in certain situations, while in others what they express is universal. Day by day, there are people who want to challenge the notion that one’s innermost thoughts are private. There are people who want to own the publically expressed thoughts of people long dead, and to have control over them. This is a deadly impulse. “My thoughts are not your thoughts; my ways are not your ways”, yet we should be able to freely exchange ideas and to have these influence our range of ideas and thinking in a communal way. There is a real threat that ideas will disappear from the landscape of information available to the average person, and this goes against everything for which the Encyclop├ędistes and founders of public libraries stand, when it comes to literacy, politics and social integrity.

Although the ownership and control of ideas is a philosophical position that has economic and social implications too deep to explore in this introduction, I will venture to posit that words and their accumulation are so fluid that it is impossible to own and control them the way some people would like. The accumulations of all expressed, notated and stored thoughts have, to some extent, made us into the people we are, now or at any given moment. The way in which a person thinks is a direct result of the words that have been passed on to the individual, throughout a lifetime of parental and societal nurture, combined with personal and highly individual exploration.

All words lead to all other words. One book is never enough—to read one is to be led to read another, if not ten or a thousand. It is very possible that I have, between what is inside my home and garage, a few thousand books. I may not have read them all (indeed, quite a lot are dry instructional manuals), but I have certainly consulted most of them, and the presence of each volume is an indication that I intended to read it, or it was given to me as a gift. Actually, all the books have been a gift; each is a gift of time and effort and thought someone else put into a printed accumulation of words. Literature is the fluid legacy of all thought throughout time.

T.S. Eliot understood this about the legacy of literature, and in his various writings sought to interact with the legacy, as well as put his own imprint on it, even to the extent of exerting a deliberate social influence on the intelligentsia of his time, through his writing, teaching and publishing activities. In particular, his poetry is an intertextual exploration and internal thought exercise. His writing is clearly infused with the ideas that came from a lifetime of reading, and his work references, mostly consciously—although perhaps also unconsciously—other writing and ideas that he experienced and admired.

For my own intertextual experiment, I used T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” as my primary source, secondarily considering current events from the newspaper and other literature that came to mind as I meditated on passages from Eliot’s seminal work.

The technique I used may be similar to the technique Eliot used, although he never described it. The first step for me was to take a copy of “Four Quartets” and annotate it with what I guessed to be source materials for bits of his text. (Of course, I had read all the texts that I associated with Eliot’s passages, which is why they would come to mind!) I also consulted the “Annotations to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets” by Servotte and Grene (iUniverse, 2010), Eliot’s “The Sacred Wood; essays on poetry and criticism” (Barnes and Noble University Paperbacks, 1966), “T.S. Eliot and the Ideology of Four Quartets” by John Xiros Cooper (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Helen Gardner’s excellent study, “The Composition of Four Quartets” (Faber and Faber, 1978), a work that is rather difficult to find, but a copy of which now rests on one of my shelves at home.

Reading the scriptural texts from the daily office, I would hit upon one that resonated with a passage from “Four Quartets”, and the meditations on those passages, often with reference also to an item from the daily newspaper, resulted in the forty poems that follow. I also annotated my own work, so that anyone reading it might know what ideas I had included in my thinking. Taken together, this collected work constitutes a species of dialectical journal, as well as a spiritual exercise.

Elisabeth T. Eliassen
14 June 2014
Alameda, CA 

To see the first of the 40 poems see this link, and work your way forward through all 40, if you are interested!