Eliot on writing
What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. And every phrase And sentence that is right (where every word is at home, Taking its place to support the others, The word neither diffident nor ostentatious, An easy commerce of the old and the new, The common word exact without vulgarity, The formal word precise but not pedantic, The complete consort dancing together) Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning
—T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding (1942)
Eliot is not only a great poet, he is also a great writing instructor. By example, of course, but sometimes more directly. Here he embeds a masterful little essay on word choice and combinations between the parentheses. And surrounding that esssay he characterizes writing in teleological terms: “the end is where we start from” and “every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning.” Which suggests we can start writing from the end or the beginning or any point in between, since we make a beginning and an end with every effort.
Is any of this intentional? I can’t say. But great poetry contains many meanings, some intended by the author, some imputed by the reader. In this case, I vote to impute.
For another example of Eliot on writing, see my earlier post, The Lawyer’s Lament.
The lawyer’s lament
[There is no] lawyer’s Paradise where all words have a fixed, precisely ascertained meaning…
—James Bradley Thayer (1898)
Words strain, Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still.
—T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton (1936)
The Thayer quote reminds me of the Coolio song, Gangsta’s Paradise: “Been spendin’ most their lives / Livin’ in the gangsta’s paradise…” Thayer’s first words, which are usually paraphrased away, reinforce my mental connection: “The Chief Justice here retires into that lawyer’s Paradise where all words have a fixed, precisely ascertained meaning…” Thayer’s Chief Justice needs to spend more time reading poetry.
Writing to think things through
I need to bicker with a language not because language is unsuitable or because I fear I may be unfit for it, but because I find myself saying what I think I wanted to say after, not before, having said it. Nothing could seem more dislocated. You do not write an outline first and then spill your words on paper; you write because you cannot write an outline. You write the way you do because the other kind of writing is unavailable to you. You write unnaturally not only because you do not have a natural language, but also because writing and thinking have become unnatural acts.
To parody Michelangelo, you do not chip away at marble in order to bring out a hitherto undisclosed statue; testing the marble, hiding its imperfections, covering up mistaken chisel marks is the statue.
You write not after you’ve thought things through; you write to think things through. You chisel in order to imagine what you might have chiseled with better eyes in a better world.—André Aciman, Parallax.