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Garbage Picking in Eliot’s Waste Land, Part 3
Posted By Tom Bair On April 30, 2012 @ 8:30 am In Poetry and Poetics | 1 Comment
Like Eliot’s “East Coker,” the second part of this dumpster dive ended in its beginning. In Part 2 of “Garbage Picking in Eliot’s Waste Land” I resolved the mystery of “The Waste Land” with such ferocity and acuity that the fan-mail I’ve received for my accomplishment has been rather demeaning. In fact, I’ve received no fan-mail at all. No one has even mentioned this study to me, and so I’ve been forced to write myself several letters, letting me know how I am coming along, and how I am faring. Here are three examples:
1. “It does not seem like you believe what you are asserting about ‘The Waste Land.’ Part 1: Eliot is the most American poet? The poetics of nerd-dom? These arguments are sweeping gestures and are unsubstantiated, if they can be proven at all. Part 2: You begin you assessment of the poem itself by attempting to solve its entirety, and although your declaration that the ‘The Waste Land’ is a fundamentally personal pursuit of Eliot’s is fairly convincing, you must admit that you have abandoned the reader, and good sense by beginning where you do. Other that, you mutter truisms of academic work and the methods of symbolism, and conclude with another unfounded slip of reasoning in regard prophets and arts and such. Slow down, Tom, and appreciate his work and your own, by god.”
2. “Are we ever going to see a close reading of the poem, or will you prattle about design forever?”
3. “You are neither cute nor charming when you rail against yourself as you do. Please, save the phony self-abasement for your extracurriculars. Besides, it only seems you enjoy yourself the more you pile lashings against your own work.”
Fine criticisms indeed. Truly, I have the most eloquent of readers. I will defend some of my methods in a moment. But first I will answer these remarks by proceeding with a more calculated decorum.
It is a mistake to think of Eliot as having totally rejected what might be regarded as the American tradition of “immediacy.” I’m speaking, of course, about Whitman, W.C. Williams, Ginsberg, and now Ashbery. (Ashbery’s great accomplishment, it might be noted, is that he mediates Whitman’s poetry of the moment with Eliot’s style of collage.) These great white sharks are marked by urgency (see W.C. Williams’ ”Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserablely everyday/for lack of what is found there”), formal flux, and, in varied degrees of intensity, a championing of the personal.
Eliot is all of the above. Yet because he is abstract, dense and because his significant poems are relatively long, we assume that he is not urgent. His formal flux is more apparent than any of the aforementioned because it happens from within poems, and less so between them. “The Waste Land” itself contains blank verse, free verse, couplets, ballad meter, and a sonnet. This third category, that American immediacy is indefatigably personal and, if you take Eliot at the word of Eliot, not a characteristic of Eliot’s poetry. Famously, from Tradition and The Individual Talent (published in The Sacred Wood in 1920):
It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. . . . 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. . . . But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.
Yes, Eliot attempts make poetry into something of a social science. (We’re also reminded of “The Fire Sermon.”) “Emotion which has a life in the poem and not in the history of the poet,” begins to sound like something a sociologist may be able to survey, analyze, and report. And what are these emotions that live in the text? To this, we turn again to The Sacred Wood, this time to “Hamlet and His Problems”:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
So the task of the poet is not to present emotion as the poet experiences emotion, but to create emotion; to make emotion a viable experience, a veritable object–a thing that exists regardless of the reader’s attention or intention.
It is not a coincidence that Eliot’s reputation has survived more powerfully (with the exception of the Quartets) in his criticism than in his poetry. Unlike Prufrock, Eliot dares. He speaks with an infamous tone of objectivity; a psychologist whose brain is both the tool of implementation and the case study. Funnily enough, this is exactly Eliot’s criticism’s intention. When asked about his criticism, his response was that it was “merely a by-product of his private poetry workshop.” Note the trajectory of Eliot’s career: Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1920), The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), and “The Waste Land” (1922).
I’m already receiving the next batch of fan-mail: Thomas, get to your point! Fine, fine.
I have two objections here:
1. Eliot the Victorian is alive and well in Prufrock. Yes, he has disdain for the chatter of the art rooms, but he is there, among them. Poems is a collection of bad poetry, striving for something new, mainly an effort to synthesize his style more fully with the power of allusion. Then, ta-da, The Sacred Wood, a collection of wonderful essays that, by Eliot’s admission, carve a vision, and lay blueprints for “The Waste Land.” Two very interesting essays that are not often read are “Ben Jonson” and “Blake.” “Ben Jonson” is remarks on a poetry of ‘the surface,’ where characters purposely lack a third dimension but populate an accurate vision of the poet’s world. Also, Eliot attends to Jonson’s reputation for having failed as a poet precisely because he was scholarly. But look at what happens if we combine “Ben Jonson” with “Hamlet and His Problems”:
Every creator is also a critic; Jonson was a conscious critic, but he was also conscious in his creations. The critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power conforms, or attempts to conform, to conventions; not to the conventions of antiquity, which he had exquisitely under control, but to the conventions of tragico-historical drama of his time. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization.
Eliot might not have used Hamlet as a vicarious existence for his own creations, but he did use Jonson. Look at how he universalize Jonson’s malady of conformity! How is this impersonal? It isn’t! It’s a suture for the failure of poems, that “The Waste Land” might have been the scar. True, this is not the poetry. But first admit that Eliot’s impersonal poetics were said to extend to the criticism, and indeed, his criticism is highly personal; we will see more of this in “Blake.” But also, what is to be made of Eliot’s own inability to synthesize the creative and critical work?
In “Blake” Eliot’s personal movement is less a matter of my own performance. His entire analysis rests in a reading of Blake’s personal biography:
The question about Blake the man is the question of the circumstances that concurred to permit this honesty in his work, and what circumstances define its limitations. The favouring conditions probably include these two: that, being early apprenticed to a manual occupation, he was not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than he wanted, or to acquire it for any other reason than that he wanted it; and that, being a humble engraver, he had no journalistic-social career open to him. There was, that is to say, nothing to distract him from his interests or to corrupt these interests: neither the ambitions of parents or wife, nor the standards of society, nor the temptations of success; nor was he exposed to imitation of himself or of anyone else. These circumstances—not his supposed inspired and untaught spontaneity—are what make him innocent.
Eliot, of course, also had a “real job” as “The Waste Land” was composed.
In sum, a highly personal string of criticism directly before an “impersonal poem” is a bunk idea, firstly because Eliot’s TWL, if it is personal, rests in the ideas generated by his very personal criticism. Criticism where he not only universalizes the processes involved in the creation of poetry, but also universalizes the predicaments of both scholarly and working individuals. That his criticism and his poetry are irreconcilable are only one of his examples of the fragments in 20th century poetics.
2. My other concern, which is implicit in the first, is that this divorce of poetry and poetics exposed a weakness in “The Waste Land” that Eliot tried to buttress, but could not. In writing this “impersonal” poem, Eliot had camouflaged its meaning so deeply that he was it’s only possible reader, it’s only attendee. In lab of poetical sciences he’d created a Frankenstein of composite parts he’d dug up, baring his own name–in effect, the most personal poem! And besides, any avid reader will tell you that nothing is more personal than what you choose to read. (Pair this with Part 2–”The Waste Land” asks us to, for a moment, become T. S. Eliot himself.)
His remedy was to attach a reading list. Thus the footnotes. Thus, the text is now fragmented between two texts. And in these footnotes, the personal remarks from Eliot, the notes that position Eliot the person in various locales, should be read as a concession from Eliot. The impersonal poetry in impossible.
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