One place understood helps us understand all places better.

Eudora Welty


Sunday, December 1, 2019

Why is it, Mr. Eliot?

T.S. Eliot was probably the most influential poet of the twentieth-century modernist movement. His poem “The Waste Land” may be the most important poem of that movement. The opening line “April is the cruellest month” is famous. Much like a James Joyce composition the poem is dense and contains hundreds of allusions and quotations from other texts which makes it difficult to understand. The poem was dedicated to Ezra Pound who helped with the editing.

E.M. Forster had this to say about “The Waste Land”:

“Let me go straight to the heart of the matter, fling my poor little hand on the table, and say what I think The Waste Land is about. It is about the fertilizing waters that arrived too late. It is a poem of horror. The earth is barren, the sea salt, the fertilizing thunderstorm broke too late. And the horror is so intense that the poet has an inhibition and is unable to state it openly.”

And he has this to say about how uninviting the poem is to the general reader (he's writing about other poets that are also difficult):

“... Gerard Manly Hopkins is a case in point—a poet as difficult as Mr. Eliot, and far more specialized ecclesiastically, yet however twisted his diction and pietistic his emotion, there is always a hint to the layman to come in if he can, and participate. Mr. Eliot does not want us in. He feels we shall increase the barrenness. To say he is wrong would be rash, and to pity him would be the height of impertinence, but it does seem proper to emphasize the real as opposed to the apparent difficulty of his work. He is difficult because he has seen something terrible, and (underestimating, I think, the general decency of his audience) has declined to say so plainly.”

Generally, poets (musicians, painters, etc.) are artisans who learn from the previous generation/s. But to learn from Eliot (and many modernists poets) would require a lifetime of study or an advanced degree or two. So it is easiest to revolt against him and the modernist program.

The following poem is my reaction to Eliot in general and Eliot's declaration (in an essay, not a poem) that poetry should be stripped of all emotion. He continues in the essay by saying something to the effect that poetry, is a refuge from emotion but of course, one would have to have emotions to want to get away from them. Seems a little condescending to me.

The “battle at hot gate” is a reference to the battle Thermopylae which seemed more important to Eliot than the forty million that had just died in WWI (military and civilian casualties). But many say that “The Waste Land” was an answer of despair to that war, so it may depend on the reader's interpretation.

“... cram for the poem” refers to those hundreds of allusions and quotations he used.

“... the preacher took the pulpit” is a reference to Eliot's conversion at the age of 39 to the Church of England and his becoming a warden (a lay official) in his parish church.

Why is it, Mr. Eliot?

Why is it less tragic
Mr. Eliot
the loss of innocence
in these times?

Did you cram
for the poem
as exam?

Did you, critic
have emotion
only for critique?

Why does it not
a world at war
match some battle
at hot gate?

There was something in you
Mr. Eliot
of the poet
but no water
on rock,
drip drop.

No hell too hot
no stair to descend
to start again.

Did you find
no flame could refine
a life unlived?

No wonder the preacher
took the pulpit
to whimper
a life unknowable, un-consolable, unknown.

Why is it less tragic
Mr. Eliot
a poem
left undone?