Unexpected Poetry


Jessica Benmen, Copy Editor

Jessica Benmen, Copy Editor

“What shall we do tomorrow? / What shall we ever do?”

My sophomore year I signed up for a class called Jazz Age Literature. On the first day, the professor handed out the syllabus, and informed us that we had all been tricked – though advertised as “literature,” the class would actually be focusing on poetry. “I knew you wouldn’t have signed up for it otherwise,” he said. He was right.

We spent the first few weeks of class looking at T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” At the time, the poem’s most thrilling aspect was its brevity; to read it in its entirety takes about 15 minutes. Spread over several weeks, this made for an ideal workload. The class was easy, manageable, required little preparation. Exactly the sort of thing my sophomore self would’ve signed up for.

“What shall we do tomorrow? / What shall we ever do?” Eliot’s line from the poem lodged itself in my head and kept coming back to me when I was least expecting it, throughout sophomore year and beyond. Making weekend plans: “What shall we do tomorrow?” Bemoaning troubled relationships: “What shall we ever do?”

So now it’s April, cruel as ever, and senior reflections are in order. When I tried to think about what I would take away with me from Colgate after graduation, Eliot popped into my mind, as he so often does, and it seemed like time to revisit him.  

(As a side note, it’s funny, reading something for a second time, years later. We agonized over every word of that poem, and now I can only summon back hints of it, phrases that I know are important, if I could only put my finger on why…)

“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME,” the pub-keeper continually reminds the women at the bar as he tries to close up. And it does feel like it’s time. Colgate hasn’t been an easy place for me, and I wonder how much I’ll miss it when I’m gone. “What branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” the narrator asks. Tougher branches. Hardened branches. Maybe not the kind of growth I would’ve signed up for, had I been equipped with a more accurate description of what I would be facing.

Eliot concludes the poem with a sanskrit invocation: “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata,” which he translates as “give, sympathise, control.” It’s a sentiment worth remembering. I’ve seen a shocking lack of generosity, compassion and maturity here, and I can only hope that continuing to advocate for it will herald its return.

“Shantih shantih shantih,” Eliot intones in the last line of the poem. The formal ending to an Upanishad (fundamental Hindu text), the word implies peace or calmness, and it seems like the right kind of note to end on. After all, there’s a lot of good here; I’m sure of it. Even if our branches are a little bit calloused, that means they’re resilient, too. And I suppose that at the end of the day, we never really know what we’re signing up for. We just show up, and deal with the poetry as it comes.

So: “What shall we do tomorrow,” class of 2016? “What shall we ever do?”