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  • John Diamond-Nigh

#Slouching toward #Bethlehem


All week long I’ve been bumping into a grousy, brilliantine-haired, saturnine, avant-garde, old-fashioned man.

By phone, an elderly friend recounts seeing #T.S. Eliot speak at his university in Illinois, by then the jehovah of poetry. Perhaps the #greatest poet of a century. “This huge auditorium,” my friend chuckles, “was packed. Standing room only. He could have been the Beatles.” A poet. Imagine.

Next, a video about the British naturalist and artist John #Newling, who had taken a thousand copies of Eliot’s most famous poem, #The Waste Land, chopped them up and composted them with kitchen waste, effectively making a gritty humus (waste land) that he then mixed into wet paper pulp, pressed into papers, dried and assembled into somber works that he hoped, in a tiny way, might hedge our complacency about a wasting-away planet and land.

Let me shoehorn this in: I love Eliot. His #Four Quartets (though uneven) are wondrous, astringent, savagely haunting glories––as only a Anglophiliac American could knit the raw of the latter and the cooked of the first into so haunting and King Jamesian a book.

The third appartition (is this an Eliot séance?) was in a NYTimes column by #Roger Cohen––a substantial explication of #“The Journey of the Magi,” another great Eliot poem, in light of the current pandemic. Eliot’s conceit is this: the three wise men have returned eastward to their homes, but something niggling and vast has changed. In the same way that an adolescent Abraham had smashed all his papa’s idols, sensing that some new order was at hand, the Magi had seen in that obscure Judean village a new #coming. A planetary swing. Dismayingly, they found on their return home, that the old idols, the old modalities were. . . old.

So many of us now are wrenched by this implacable duality within ourselves: how do we attune the perils not just of the #pandemic but of the swelling realm of #deceit that preceded, and even augured, it with a perennial hope to #re-enchant the world? How does the #poetry of existence stay unimpaired in the face of our fears? How does one’s hopes for an essential, loving, relevant religion bear up against a tide of strident and apocalyptic heresies?

Lynne and I used to write a newspaper column called #The Better World. That’s the column that I still want to write, embroidered with light, unvexed with fear. That column now, in many ways, seems like a nostalgic luxury. With what tools can any artist address America now, do so honestly, steer wide of the poisons of petulance, and still lift high the old horizons of enchantment? How can I still write about a Better World and not be a mere confectionary idealist?

Most deeply, how do #art and soul #connect for any honest, well-meaning person whose quest for beauty is darkly embattled right now with #disenchantment?

April is the cruelest month. So begins the Waste Land. Still, April this year in Asheville was sublime, long congregations of daffodils, young rabbits hopping in the feathery grass like popcorn.

Dispensations change. Drastic things occur and far beyond the tired scopes of human plan, some rough beast, it’s hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born” (Yeats). How do we make our way along that harsh map, past the burnt-out, but still wildly fanged and acrimonious obsolescence of one age, and still advance toward the heartening altitudes of a Better World?

Alas, there is not adequate room here to quote “The Journey of the Magi”; it is easy to find in full. It is a wonderful poem. Please take a look.

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