Today is the birthday of TS Eliot (September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965). I still remember how strange and romantic it felt when I first read The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock in my last or penultimate year in high school.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table…
The words suddenly came back to me the day before yesterday when I didn’t even remember his birthday was approaching.
Eliot was so different from Wordsworth and Keats and Shelley. Maybe the fact that we didn’t have to read him made him all the more attractive. The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and Rhapsody on a Windy Night — even the titles were so romantic.
Maybe I was reading him wrong, but literary criticism leaves me cold. I like to make my own way through books.
Only the other day I read in the introduction to Poems That Make Grown Men Cry a quote from the poet Cecil Day Lewis. “We do not write in order to be understood, but in order to understand,” he said — or words to that effect.
Eliot may have been different, but I had no desire to analyze him, categorize him. All I really wanted to do was read him because I liked his words and his images and the emotions they wrought.
He was sombre and dark. But I could get all the happiness I wanted from the Beatles and rock ’n’ roll. Even teenagers sometimes like noir.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of a dead land, mixing
Memory and desire…
The opening lines of The Waste Land are so haunting. Memory and desire… what could be more evocative than that?
It did not come easy. The manuscript was heavily edited by Ezra Pound.
Later, in The Four Quartets, in East Coker, Eliot wrote about “the intolerable wrestle/ With words and meanings.”
In Burnt Norton, the first poem in The Four Quartets, he wrote:
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision…
Poetry is not “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, he said, repudiating Wordsworth. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, in the collection, Sacred Wood, he wrote:
The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Consequently, we must believe that “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is an inexact formula. For it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation… Of course this is not quite the whole story. There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
There seems to be something cool and aloof about Eliot. He was writing for the solitary reader.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm in December 1948, he said:
Poetry is usually considered the most local of all the arts. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, can be enjoyed by all who see or hear. But language, especially the language of poetry, is a different matter. Poetry, it might seem, separates peoples instead of uniting them.
But on the other hand we must remember, that while language constitutes a barrier, poetry itself gives us a reason for trying to overcome the barrier. To enjoy poetry belonging to another language, is to enjoy an understanding of the people to whom that language belongs, an understanding we can get in no other way.
He knew his place in poetry. He ended his speech by saying:
And I take the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature, when it is given to a poet, to be primarily an assertion of the supra-national value of poetry. To make that affirmation, it is necessary from time to time to designate a poet: and I stand before you, not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry.
Poetry matters. Eliot certainly does. He was the Picasso of poetry, bringing a new idiom and perspective into verse.