Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Loren Eiseley: Meaningless Voices

Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), as you may have noticed, is one of my favorite essayists and prose writers, possibly my favorite, if I ever took the time to think about it.  He writes clearly and succinctly--his essays are a joy to read.  His poetry, though, is quite different--enigmatic, and puzzling at times, many times actually.  Something there, however, resonates with me, even if I don't understand just what it is.  Here is one of those poems.

Meaningless Voices

Water that comes endlessly from the blue mountain lakes unvisited save by deer

and the deer themselves,
bugling faint calls through the aspen thickets in high autumn.
all talk in meaningless voices.

The valley is filled with cricket chirps and leaf whispers
and whatever it is comes crying
on the rain squalls from the northeast.

Even the grasshoppers have been here a long time and click songs
without the bright, sinister meanings of
the mountain rattlers, whose voice, like death, is purposeful.

All of these have been here for ages, but later
horns rasp in the valley and the voice of dynamite
splits boulders and the roads come, all purposeful, all strident with meaning,
while red-winged blackbirds
fly away to new pools.

Nevertheless the meaningless voices are also significant
in what is past and to come.

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley

Are the only meaningful voices those that signify death or destruction?  Yet, those "meaningless voices are also significant/in what is past and to come."  In what way were they significant in the past and, again, will be significant in what is "to come"?


  1. I'm having trouble with meaningless and significant as modifiers of voices. Is the paradox intended or accidental . . . Good poetry of bad poetry? I'm not sure. The rest coheres. The final line is a problem for me.

  2. RT,

    I have similar problems. "Meaningful" seems associated with death and destruction, which doesn't sound like Eiseley to me at all. He never does define significant except to associate it with those "meaningless voices" at the end of the poem.

    The last stanza is a turnaround, clearly signaled by "Nevertheless," or so it seems to me.

  3. I've always loved Eiseley. Reminds me I need to read some more of him.

  4. Tarnmoor,

    He's been a favorite of mine since the early '60s when I first discovered him in the Time Reading Program, one of the best book clubs I ever belonged to.

    1. Fred, if I recall correctly, the Time Reading Program featured wonderful trade paperbacks of superb titles. Those books became some of my favorite reading adventures.

  5. RT,

    Exactly. That program introduced me to a much wider variety of reading than I had ever experienced before.

    I first read, in the TRP, Eiseley, Graham Greene, Konrad Lorenz, Walter van Tilburg Clark, Traven, Carlo Levi. . . That was in the .60s. TIME revived the program in the 80s, and I rejoined, but most of the titles were the same, so I quickly ran through the list.