5/24/11

What We Can Still Learn From T.S. Eliot

(N.B. This was a paper written for Keith Waldrop's class, "The Wasteland and After." Again, I don't assume anything will happen with it, so this seems like the place to post it.)

People fall in and out of favor all the time. In Eliot’s case, Dante and the metaphysical poets were “in” and the Romantic poets were “out,” and in the same vein, Eliot has gone out of fashion and come back to us in new ways. For the generation immediately after his death in 1965, Eliot was too established, too much the mainstream success to be of any use to a crowd coming of age during the 50s and 60s who were raised on rebellion and anti-establishment ideals. Now, however, more than 45 years since Eliot’s death, there are things to read and understand in Eliot’s work and now, as time has passed, in his life. As we are removed from the period in which Eliot was working, it is not only possible to look at this work with fresh eyes, but also possible to want to unpack his work with a contemporary eye. There are still plenty of things we can learn from Eliot as a poet and from his poems.
Eliot seems to a part of the first generation of poets who had to work in order to support their art, which of course is nothing new to the modern writer. Before Eliot, it seems that poets and writers came from a more literate, self-sufficient class, but as literacy and thus the desire to become a writer has increased, it seems that the number of writers who had previously been able to support themselves via art, or at least have someone else support them because of art, has dwindled. This is, of course, not a bad thing. Not at all: art should be made from every group and aesthetics should be the concern, not whether or not the poet has the luxury of taking the time to write.[1] This is, of course, a myth perpetrated by the Romantic poets who seemed to lead exotic lives and die young. Poets of course have always been seen as poor, but Eliot does something interesting: he chooses to find work rather than find a way to survive via his art. His generation has not followed this per se: Ezra Pound seems to have lived off his parents’ money; James Joyce taught English and borrowed quite a bit from friends and family; Ernest Hemingway seems to also have gotten by on his family money. So for Eliot to work was probably unusual at the time for a poet and writer, but for the generations after him, work was entirely necessary in order to fund writing and the generally unusual lifestyle most writers lead. While academia has had a certain draw since the proliferation of creative writing programs, plus the access the libraries and odd work hours, other writers have chosen different paths for the sake of interest as well as time. Joseph Ceravolo began writing poems while in the army, but upon return worked as a civil engineer and, along with his wife Rosemary (who is a visual artist), raised children and lived a relatively regular life, minus writing poems which took in the Mexican desert with language and rendered it back as a new image for his reader to absorb.
While the job aspect may seem rather trivial, it is Eliot who shows us the way to handle both. Eliot worked first at a bank and later as an editor for Faber and Faber, which not only allowed him time to work but also exposed him to new work coming through. This also allowed him to do something that Pound did (perhaps still more brilliantly) which was promote the writing of others, which is now incredibly commonplace among poets of this generation. Perhaps a cynic would say that poets do not act altruistically, but rather hope to get something back, but the model already existed with Pound, who would attempt to publish others as well as himself with great vigor, but hoping to forge relationships as well. With so many small pressed and publishers now, poets are often publishing their friends and colleagues, often with the desire to get published in other places as a result of their kindness. In an age with so many poets writing, the Eliot/Pound relationship model has much to teach us about networking and getting ahead. While some may scoff at this kind of business-like activity, it seems to be the way that the poetry industry (often jokingly called “PoBiz”) works now. Whether art should be an industry is certainly an issue, but it is and the way forward understands how to navigate it in that manner. For Eliot, who wrote generally little, his sense of direction was incredibly strong and his knowledge of trends seems to have been fruitful for him. It is a skill of Eliot’s that ought to be studied and it has clearly impacted the current nature of the PoBiz. The modernists, in a sense, created the current model of poets working and interacting etc.
As mentioned, Eliot published relatively little compared to Pound and compared to other writers and poets in general (at least in terms of those who are successful at getting published, which could not have been Eliot’s issue). This would suggest that he was very protective of his work and careful to keep an eye on his image as a poet and critic, again, something modern poets can learn from. In this period where publication can lead to a career in teaching, the desperation to do so is staggering with many poets submitting work as quickly as they can write it. However, as is the case with Eliot, many poets could benefit from holding back and purposefully steering their careers a little more directly than being desperate to publish. This is not to say, of course, that Pound was desperate, but perhaps in some sort of Freudian reading, we could understand his motivations better. Unfortunately, that is beyond the scope of this paper. Regardless, a lesson that can be learned from Eliot here is to hold back, perhaps not quite as much as him, but at least in some sense with a hope of guiding work in a given direction.
There might be something wrong in this logic: in Eliot’s case, he published little, but he also wrote very little, often putting down various lines and not writing for long stretches rarely if ever. What should the more prolific writer do? In the case of Pound, he sent out everything he wrote, but perhaps the solution here is a balance between submitting blindly and holding out. While publication is a desire with mixed motivations, it seems only worthwhile to be slightly protective of one’s work and not carpet-bomb journals, etc.
Beyond lifestyle choices and decisions regarding publication and protection of work, the majority of what we can still gleam from Eliot is aesthetic in nature. Eliot is not the first poet to include abstraction and reference in his work, but his usage of these things is not only essential to his work, he also allows gives other poets free license to do the same. In terms of reference, Eliot draws from any and every source known to him, especially from great literary works that his is familiar with. This has become a common thing now: Eliot’s aesthetic of referentiality expands not only beyond poetry, but very much into all forms of art. Collage in painting as well as poetry is able to grab from a variety of different sources and places them together in a way that creates a cohesive work. Even television, which could nominally be considered “art” allows for a heavy referential nature. The simple thing to say, however, is that it begins at Eliot- this pulling from other things and bringing together. For Eliot, considering his work pace, it seems that there was no way to escape the works that were floating around in his mind, which comes from not only being a voracious reader but also someone inclined towards reflecting his knowledge.
In the age of information, it seems impossible for the modern artist to not consider their surroundings- not that this was ignored before Eliot, but after The Wasteland, there is no going back. In a way, Eliot’s most lasting contribution to art is the acknowledgement that all art and all world works together. Even consider the title The Wasteland, which was written primarily during the “Great War” or the First World War: the area between trenches on the Western Front was called the “no man’s land,” or the area over which most of the battle occurred and was considered the most dangerous place to be as a result of direct fire. The allusion here is obvious in that the “no man’s land” is a sort of “waste land,” strewn with the dead and injured bodies of young soldiers. It is difficult to separate the two images, the violence of war and the inner-turmoil of Eliot’s poem. There is a war going on inside, it seems, which mirrors the violence of the world around Eliot. Of course, the title is perhaps more a reference to John L. Weston’s book From Grail to Romance, but considering the period of writing and publication, it is hard not to read the title and poem in this way.
Eliot’s writing process was a slow one, especially in comparison to his friend Pound’s. Eliot would often come up with a line he liked and write it down. He would then set it aside for a period of time and come back to it (though not always) and very slowly construct a poem over a great amount of time. This process seems to work in a modern world where jobs and lives interfere in the writing experiment, though many poets and authors still happily write for long stretches of time. However, considering that Eliot is in many ways the first modern writer, concerned with having to make a living as mentioned before, this process is one that many poets could learn from, especially in the age where having a computer that saves files and a smart phone which will record audio or allow you to write down even the tiniest of ideas is available.[2] Of course, this technology has existed for at least several decades with tape recorders, etc., but the proliferation of technology along with the chaos of everyday life lends itself to a more Eliot-esque style of writing.
What comes out of this, and why this process is important, is that rhythms and ideas become more buried and subvert Romantic ideas of literature. Because a poem is made of thousands of tiny ideas and phrases, the cohesive nature of Eliot’s poems comes from the overall reading of any section in The Wasteland versus the poems leading somewhere by the end. This is not to say The Wasteland’s sections are without direction, but rather than each section must be examined in order to see how Eliot’s process plays out and that it is at the end of the poem where the full image emerges. As a result of Eliot’s process in Wasteland and after, he is creating a mindset in the overall poem instead of creating a single image by poem’s end, which contradicts many Romantic poems immediately. This is a method for current poets to move forward. The poet Aase Berg, in the wake of having children, admits that while she has not changed how she writes a poem, she has had to begin building poems in little pieces as a result of time constraints. This is not to say that time was not an issue for the poets before Eliot, but it seems that Eliot is the first poet to acknowledge and exemplify that there are things that one must do in order to survive other than write poetry.
Eliot is in fashion of late, it seems. Scholarship on his work has increased and his poems are easily part of the canon from high school on. This is not to say he will stay in vogue from now on, but rather than at this moment, there are many things that can be gained from reading his work for modern students and poets alike. While the examples presented are only a few, they cover the basic scale of Eliot’s writing, especially in his period of writing The Wasteland and the poems that follow, especially Burnt Norton, which he wrote while working at Faber and Faber.[3] Until a poet with the with the power and readership of Eliot comes along again (which seems impossible considering that small presses have divided poets into tiny units and there are so many poets writing and publishing today that no one poet could ever have the market share that Eliot did) his work will continue to polarize and be in and out of style with the current generation of poets.[4] Eliot and Pound both seem to have set up a pattern that continues to be the trend in American poetics that will continue until someone comes along to subvert it in the way they did to the Romantic poets before them. Also, maybe poetry has changed more than that and more quickly to really say that the Eliot/Pound model has continued, but at least at present, it is easy to see the parallels.



[1] I hate thinking that this is next to impossible because poetry is still seen as such an elitist and intellectual endeavor. However, so many people write poems in their spare time, but self-esteem seems to be an issue in terms of publication.
[2] I mention this, of course, because this is how I work now, especially my thesis worked this way, though I did manage to work in stretches, but only because time was crucial. If it were up to me, I would gladly spend years working on a book, but alas Brown University has requirements.
[3] Eliot also spent his time playing cribbage, as was pointed out in class by Keith Waldrop.
[4] As if to add insult to injury, the Romantic poets are still the most widely read by student and adult alike. Keats, Shelley, and Byron seem to be the most popular poets around, even still.

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