Fading Phrases, Rising Words

The sky clears, a rising wind from the north sending a fog of celebration out to sea.  The moon herself rides high and fast between the scudding clouds.  This moon called Blue, not blue at all but white, whiter than any snow, shines brilliant and harsh, lighting the transition between old and new as one year gives way to the next.

Standing solitary and moonlit in these ephemeral hours, tangled in this fragile web of no-longer and not-yet, it’s possible to glimpse tokens of a truth hidden to hordes of thoughtless revelers in the street: this is the way of life. What has been passes away into that which was, even as the yet-to-be stirs toward vitality. Armies rise and nations fall. Children squall into existence while parents sigh into death. In the farthest reaches of the galaxies, stars explode with pulsing light while on our own shy, spinning globe rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn.


Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against this backdrop of continual change, words sometimes appear to be placid and predictable, flowing from past to future in a steady sluice of syllables controlled by the gatekeepers of meaning.

For those who read and especially for those who write, the thought of such a flow is comforting. Like the rivers it resembles, it cleanses and comforts, nourishing the roots of creativity.  And yet it is a poet – one who stepped full into this stream of words – who dares tell us another truth.  The way of life also is the way of words, says Eliot. Words rise and fall as surely as armies or nations. Syllables rearrange themselves, paragraphs take on life, sentences fade away.  True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words slip away and are lost: out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination. 

Brought to stand between last year’s language and next year’s words, another of Eliot’s poems, The Hollow Men, whispers of an experience every writer knows:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…

Within the context of The Hollow Men, these words have particular meanings.  But within the context of Eliot’s life and work as a whole, they perfectly communicate  an imperfectly understood and uncomfortable truth: words are not ours to manipulate.  We do not own words.  We are not their masters.  However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners in the poor cupboards of our mind, words will have their way.

The shadow of wordlessness that comes upon us from time to time, our sense that language itself has grown old and tired as the vision of a spent imagination is rooted in our misunderstanding of words.  Confronted by blank pages we fuss and fiddle, attempting to replicate the past, only to discover the past will not be reclaimed.  When the turning of the year has come,  no formula, no key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars will guarantee the continued liveliness of our words.  Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.

But of course it does not end: not there, not now.  For there are new words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light waiting in the shadows of an emerging year.  Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a blue moon’s light they are, in fact, our new year’s words.

Who will give them voice?


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10 thoughts on “Fading Phrases, Rising Words

  1. Linda,

    I’ve always found it hard to say good-bye, especially to something that has been so good — it matters not whether the good has been a year, a piece of writing or a treasured relationship. It’s ironic that the thought of saying goodbye is, for me, often worse that the actual goodbye itself. Once behind me, the heavy feeling that pervaded my spirit is released. With a goodbye spoken, I breathe easier.

    The imagery you used of moon and sea and fog was lovely. T.S. Eliot is a favorite of mine as well; I see you’ve spent time together of late. It’s been well spent.

    But here’s another passage & poet I thought of when reading your essay, that made me think, in response to your final question, that it is we who stand ready to give words voice, even if to hint at truth that is not our own:

    From Aurora Leigh…

    “That, if we say a true word, instantly
    We feel ’tis God’s, not ours, and pass it on
    As bread at sacrament, we taste and pass
    Nor handle for a moment, as indeed
    We dared to set up any claim to such!

    –Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    Here’s to writing our way through moonlit fog.

    Happy New Year.



    Lovely words from EBB. We have such trouble as a culture with the concept of stewardship – responsible use of gifts we’ve been granted but cannot truly possess. Land, words, relationships… Eliot clearly grasped what it means to serve words.

    And I understand the difficulty of goodbyes – they’ve always been hard for me, even if it’s just finishing a book. There have been several extraordinarily difficult goodbyes in my life, including leaving Liberia. I sat on that jet bawling my eyes out. A Liberian steward said, “There, there, Missy. You’ll be back.” And I was. Insert every trite saying about doors closing and doors opening here – they’re entirely true.

    I do so love moons, and fog and wind. Put them all together in one evening and… well, they sent what I originally meant to write for New Year’s right out the window. Happy New Year to you, too.


  2. Linda,
    You’ve given us a year of exciting writing here. I’ve looked forward to each offering.

    I usually love this time of year – clean slate and all that. I haven’t had the time for contemplation recently, and it feels as if I’ve been shot out of a cannon, catapulted from one year into the next. Everything is a blur.

    Here’s hoping you fall into just the right pile of words in 2010. I’ll certainly be reading them.


    I’ve had a couple of those cannon-shot years, and they’re not exactly fun. On the other hand, they do make dithering impossible, which is all good for me. I can dither with the best of them.

    I spent some time yesterday doing a lot of re-reading, and came away with the firm conviction that all those folks who say the way to learn to write is to write are – well, right. I haven’t transmogrified from hack to Hemingway, for sure, but I see change in a couple of ways that please me. I’m certainly beginning this year with a clearer sense of how to go about this thing we call writing, and it just pleases me beyond words to have some folks around who still are willing to keep reading.

    Here’s to clean slates, contemplation and an end to the catapults – happy New Year!


  3. Linda,

    Your post has stirred up so many ripples in me that I don’t know where to start to respond. First, the sky was so overcast that night that I couldn’t see the moon. So much for the blue and bright lunar fantasy. However, I have your picture here to enjoy, and I’m amazed at your skill… I’d like to know how you got that picture and to superimpose TSE’s most apt words on it!

    TSE is a prophet of all times, in my opinion. The Hollow Men is one of my favorite poems for its incisive commentary … considering the poet wrote it a century ago, but it’s ever more relevant now. I’ve been tempted to use the last lines several times when I was writing my posts but decided not to for fear that they would be too disheartening… but one of these days I just might.

    Words… an endowment and a gift (also reminiscent of the Word as a gift), we’re the crafters to build and arrange to release our inner voice. What a powerful tool we’ve been given. And all the more we need to create conscientiously, however paradoxical it sounds. But yes, I look forward to your designing and creating more eloquent posts in the coming year, Linda, if not only for your own fulfillment, and for our enjoyment, but also for the honor of the word giver who has bestowed upon us such an amazing gift.


    I’ll send along an email with the particulars on the photo. I’m not so skilled with these things, I just know where to find nice programs that are easy to use. Much of what I do is the graphics version of point-and-shoot.

    I nearly used The Hollow Men at Halloween, albeit in a totally different way. Now, it’s sitting in the files waiting for next year. Perhaps I can have my sketch developed by then. It’s one of those pieces that reads so differently in different contexts. In the late 50’s and 60’s, when I first bumped into it, we all were fixated on the “bang”. Now, there’s a good bit of whimpering going on, and as you say the poem continues to be relevant.

    My Beloved Professor, who haunts these pages like a friendly literary ghost, often used Luther’s concept of the living word to open up literature to us. As he put it, there are living words and dead words. Some of the most vibrant are found in literature, and the moribund abound in the so-called “spiritual realms”. He always said the task of the writer isn’t to make words live, but to let words live – to let them be true to their nature.
    A good bit of what he said never made sense 30 years ago. Today, I think he was a genius. I wish I’d kept his lecture notes ;-)


  4. In the context of learning a new language, Linda, I pray to God “there are new words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light waiting in the shadows of an emerging year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a blue moon’s light they are, in fact, our new year’s words.”

    Once in awhile I come across a Dutch word that thrills me to no end and breathes life into me…a word like KIJK (= look). Any time I can use it in the appropriate context, I do. KIJK! Look! I am learning a new language…and relearning the old, as well. :) Hip-Hip-Hooray for the words, however few and far between, that breathe life into us.


    Oh, learning a new language is magic. I’m not especially good with languages, but I’ve had a bit of experience with the thrill of being able to speak a new word and be understood. There’s nothing like it. And you do need to find the right word – I just tried a little English to Dutch to English and – well, you know what that can be like! Context is everything.

    Well, and pronunciation. When I read comments on your shutterchance site, I look at the Dutch and haven’t even a clue about what they sound like. So many strange combinations of consonants – like kijk.When I was in Liberia, one of the most difficult sounds in the Kpelle language was the “kp” sound. We practiced by saying “pink pig” over and over, to get a sense of the combination. What a giggle!

    And what a wonderful new year it’s going to be!


  5. I’ve been back and forth to this post so many times, I ought to say something: oh, my. Oh my oh my oh my.

    You’ve sent me to Mr. Eliot many times over the last weeks, to what I did not know as well as to what I thought I knew (which was not much) and clearly did not. “We do not own words.” True. And later, the call to stewardship, an old word with many associations…

    Let us all then be stewards of words:”resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a blue moon’s light.”
    Oh, my.

    I have so much enjoyed and learned from your “last year’s words”. I await more of this year’s. Thank you.


    There’s a certain time of the year when the water in the bay and marinas “turns” – urged by temperature and who knows what else, the surface layers sink and the lower layers rise, and you can see the turning by the mud that’s stirred up. Right now, I feel like that’s what’s happening with me and the good Mr. Eliot – poems and understandings of poems that have lain undisturbed suddenly are rising and mixing with life. I suppose that means my blog entries are the mud, but that’s fine by me!

    Poor stewardship has had a hard time of it – there’s nothing like the phrase “stewardship drive” to make most people quiver. But I agree: let us be stewards of words.

    It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it? Sometimes I feel like all of our blogs are part of a huge jigsaw – every one is a little different, but we all fit together to create quite a picture. It will be such fun to see what this year’s picture turns out to be!


  6. Awesome post,Linda. It is always such a joy to read you. My New Year posts are so paltry in comparison :)


    You really are too kind, and you certainly never have given us a “paltry” post. I do think I tend to write well about the New Year because it’s my favorite time of year. I love the sense of a fresh start and new possibilities, and finding those words of T.S. Eliot didn’t hurt a thing ;-)

    A happy New Year to you. I hope it’s filled with everything good, including a deep sense of satisfaction with your creative ventures.


  7. A Beautiful read. Thank You.


    Thanks so much for stopping by, and especially for letting me know you were here by your comment.

    I stopped by your blog and will come back to explore a bit. There are some intriguing entries there.
    A happy and creative year to you!


  8. Between the emotion And the response…

    That’s my nature. Heroes of my pictures indwell there. What we see are just the walls of our rooms. The walls that bind us to ourselves and thus blind us and rob the wings. … Who will give them voice?

    The above explains as all my works the gratitude to you for the help to voice what matters in plain language, for to grasp the reality of the symbols better.


    Sometimes I think everything important happens in those “in-between” places. Certainly, much creativity takes place there.

    As for the walls and the wings… Sometimes the door is wide open, and we are the ones who decide not to fly through it. I’ve watched birds who think themselves trapped, when escape lies only two feet above them or two feet below. So near to freedom, they flutter and struggle. So often we do the same.

    It is a pleasure to see you again.


  9. Brilliant imagery, very evocative. A real sense of grandeur in this latest post.


    Thank you so much. It was a pleasure and a joy to write, and even to re-read. But as I’ve noted above, a T.S. Eliot starting point almost always will bear fruit.

    I appreciate so much your taking the time to comment. You’re always welcome.


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