Preserving Poetry


While cutting up a copy of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for an unrelated project, I began to muse upon those lines that, in a way, are the thesis of the poem, and the explanation for its form. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” the narrator tells us at the end of the poem. The world has been devastated by the Great War, and now what remains is a waste land, literally and metaphorically. But the narrator of the poem has a cache of fragments—pieces of Western culture as it was before the devastation; moments of beauty and meaning that he carries with him. And because he does so, all is not lost. He is not lost.

And like a hodge-podge of brickwork, he has mortared them into a poem: joined together what had never coexisted before, except in the mind of a loving reader. So Sidney and Dickens and Arnault and Wagner and Ovid and many more intertwine throughout the poem, and new verse is made from the remnants of old. It is an act of preservation on Eliot’s part: a figurative preservation of Western culture, and at the same time a literal self-preservation, an attempt to shore himself up in the wake of the devastation of his world.

Naturally, I began to think about what poetry I would preserve, and about the preservation of images that are beautiful or meaningful to us on an individual level. Musing on the idea of something preserved also led me to think about other types of preserves—wildlife and nature preserves, for example, where species can find the space away from our encroachment to rest on their journeys, to rally their numbers, to recover. To live true to their own natures.

And of course there is another kind of preserve—the kind we put up to capture the bounty of the harvest, the beauty and flavor of fruit at its peak. A stand against the lean winter, when we’d have nothing without that small act of foresight that helps keep flesh and spirit alive. These preserves capture a moment of time, to be experienced out of season. They are the past in a jar; until opened, when the past is suddenly alive and present. But preserves of this kind must be altered, through domestic alchemy, to be able to transcend the death of the fruit when picked, and the decay which must normally follow.

There is work in preserving: women’s work, historically—just as women have so often preserved memory, and genealogy, and story. Fruit must be seeded, and sliced, juiced and sugared, cooked; and so a thing is preserved, but in a different form than that in which it began its life.

And so in putting up poetry for a later season, in creating preserves of language and image and beauty, I took care to slice my chosen poems thinly, line by line, and stirred well to mix them. They were poured into glass jars, and labeled with their contents and date. When the jars are next opened the poems inside won’t be in the same form in which they began life. They could be reassembled; but they can also be enjoyed in a new way, as each line intermingles with new fellows—fragments creating a new whole, a new flavor.