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Eliot

“The Waste Land” is most usually and most persuasively read as a satire. The argument for “The Waste Land” as a satire sounds something like this: Written in the wake of WWI, a time of immense cultural (and personal) confusion, Eliot’s waste is pure disharmony between body and mind; the triumph of industry over civility and of frivolity over responsibility; and the ultimately sallow consolation of restoration only in one’s own headspace. Poetry itself is implicit is this decay— Romanticism’s unearned novelties a reflection of hubris and Victorianism’s decadence only spit-shining a deeper blemish.  But of course, Eliot is a poet. This irony of “The Waste Land” is best represented by its only true emotional center, the second line of quoted material taken from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.” Here our “The Waste Land”’s speaker is channeling a father gone insane with the death of his son—the opposite of Hamlet—in which he (the father) will use the stage to draw out guilt from his son’s killers. In “The Waste Land” we see that poetry, for Eliot, only continues to be a possibility because of this father, this tradition, which can be reused and recycled at the given historical moment’s discretion.

So fragments are the order of the day. The text is divided between poem proper and footnotes, the poem proper is divided into sections, no narrative calcifies among these sections, even the allusions divide their ancestry between what is known as East and West. The speaker, of course, is worse for the wear (ie so nuts they’re still roasting him (yes, that‘s a Fire Sermon joke)). And the one solace, these ‘fragments shored against ruin’ (please note that this is a metafictive trope regarding “The Waste Land”’s own design, famously described as collage), beacons an effort to stave off despair, heralding a tradition that has simultaneously abandoned its decedents as its decedents have abandoned it, leaving a trail of empty gestures, an uncultivated culture, a poem breaking itself apart with the without of guidance, composure, and love and compassion. Thus, “The Waste Land” is a satire, finally, of western tradition and culture. It is not linear, it does not usher a transcendent meaning, it does not reason, it’s barely for the public—and yet its contents are: Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc. And so where the poem is at all comical it is so with a sort of hysterical laughter, high-brow, perhaps, but more especially high-pitched.

Given this assumption, I consider my counter to be self-evident. If “The Waste Land” is a satire by way of referencing and containing the diamonds of the West while simultaneously parodying the West’s finger-banging for an easily communicable Truth, then it is only a satire by way of its mode of reference. Were it not for “The Waste Land”‘s allusions it would be a fragmented poem. An experiment no more or less attention-grabbing than practically the entirety of Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations. A hybrid of Prufrock and Eliot’s collection titled Poems, it is the domineering use of allusion in conjunction with its teen-like angst at the lack of tangibility of the texts of which it is made that makes this poem in any way ironic.

Thus, first and foremost, “The Waste Land” is—in the tradition of Dante and Eliot’s later flag-bearer Thomas Pynchon—an encyclopedia. The notion of encyclopedic narratives comes from Ed Mendelson, and I’ll expand on this tradition in a moment, but my point here is that Eliot’s sense of responsibility is not to conjure a well-informed guffaw, bludgeoning the calamitous sexual needs of a brutish poor, but an attempt to save a few lines, a few poems, a few books for later use. I direct those who scoff to Eliot’s own “Hamlet and His Problems,”

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know.

The work of poetry as a material. As something physical, like lumber. And, according to Eliot, interpretation is matter of facts. That’s a bewildering prescription. Also, the word “standards” is odd here, and we’ll return to these things. But as an encyclopedia, “The Waste Land” is not a satire at all; instead, it’s an earnest documentation of Eliot’s very profound and very personal experience with literature. The fragments, after all, are shored against my ruin.

Three asides (concluding with awesome segue):

1. In this context, the poem proper and the footnotes—together—make a cohesive whole that is “The Waste Land.” The footnotes are part of the body of the text, nothing less. Eliot’s flippant attitude toward we-the-reader’s interpretation, the dozens of allusions (aka suggested reading), even the notes that inject Eliot’s own understanding into the text, each are elements of the poem that enjoy an all-but-equal share in consideration.

2(a). In “Burial of the Dead” the speaker says “Come in under the shadow of this red rock/(There is shadow under this red rock),/And I will show you something different from either/your shadow at morning striding behind you/or your shadow at evening rising to meet you”—why does the speaker assume you are traveling eastward? Why does Eliot’s footnote for “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” go out of its way to mention that this is a formal closing of an Upanishad, much like “Amen” at the close of a prayer. Eliot wants one mythology to rule them all. And so he writes his western Upanishad.

2(b). For Eliot, form is not a matter of fitting the inspiration for a strait jacket. Eliot’s form creates a historical object, something with borders and boundaries. Form tempers the bleeding from one thing into another; but this is not to say that the boundaries are not, when at their best, porous.

3. What Whitman means to the epic is still becoming clear, which is nice because it means it’s a process in which we’re partaking, if we’re partaking. Speaking of process, it seems to be the hallmark of this tradition. The American epic is not as much the all-encompassing sweep of any particular poem, but is instead the motion—the before, during, and after—of each particular poet. Hence, Leaves of Grass is the becoming of Whitman. And Eliot is a full-fledged participant in this tradition. Much like Leaves of Grass, after 1925 Eliot put all of his poems, with exception of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a children’s book, into one book of Collected Poems. And if this is not enough to convince you that Eliot was invested in process, read his remarks on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which explicitly instructs readers to look at this as a one aspect of the totality of Joyce’s career.

True, Eliot’s speaker is more ornamented than our barbaric yawper. Eliot’s poems are built with closed doors, where Whitman wants the doors entirely removed. He (Eliot) prefers the ritual of technique to the ritual of intimacy. So although Eliot winces while he nods to Whitman, he nonetheless makes the nod. Remember, they are lilacs that breed from the dead land. The two are of the same lineage. Even the tension between the two is a classically American tension: Whitman, poet of action, newspapers, egalitarian even in his glances. Eliot, poet of inaction, journals, a representative from the creative elite.

Here we might again note that Eliot was a sickly child. He couldn’t play games. So he stayed inside, reading. The American stylizing of freedom is Whitman’s frontier as its absence is Eliot’s. Whitman participates, and Eliot envisions.

Encyclopedic narrative does not proceed as dramatic action. The narrative is not of people, places, and things but of words, ideas, and histories. It provides references. The processes of narrative only occur as an intellectual exercise in describing, categorizing, and reformulating. For the encyclopedia, events take place within ideas, not time. Take our dude Dante for instance. We’ll look at the Inferno.

In the Inferno Dante provides an intensely systematic description of sin. Notice that the dramatic action of Dante’s plot is decided from the beginning. There is no suspense here, no ‘what next’. The pilgrimage has been divined and it’s a comedy because it will end in Paradise. The characters are two dimensional. They’re representations of ideas—excuses for Dante and Virgil to have a chat.  The current of this story is not action. Instead it is the detail of the vision. Each punishment sheds more light on the nature of its corresponding sin by way of synecdoche (eg the lustful are blown around by the whims of the winds). His vision of Hell’s circles and their rigid hierarchies, the historical figures of his choosing, his own (Dante is a character is his own story) reactions to the punishment—all of these things lend to Dante’s classifying sin from least to most egregious.

Eliot’s encyclopedia is more . . . playful. I won’t say that it is pure play. Thomas Eliot is not Thomas Pynchon. But if Dante’s encyclopedia represents a well-ordered world and Pynchon’s encyclopedia represents a world ordered only by the patterns of one’s perception, then where is Eliot? In short, how do we read “The Waste Land” as reference? How do we use “The Waste Land”?

Eliot’s most obvious break from Dante occurs in the realm of aesthetics. To be clear, Dante’s preferred mode of operation is allegory. Eliot’s is symbolism. When I say symbolism, of course, I am referring to the aesthetic movement of which Eliot describes a variation as the definition of a poet in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The poet as a catalyst is the symbolist in motion: At the hands of the mind an emotion or feeling is processed and transformed into an entirely independent material. Like how lumber becomes a house. For Eliot, the poet is essentially a specialist. Everyone uses words but the poet designs words. The poem does not “convey” meaning. The poem is meaning.

With this in mind, that the poem’s presence is its meaning, we use “The Waste Land”’s “historical facts,” (eg the images of speech it performs, its allusions, even its lapses) like atheists in a friend’s church. We show up. We’re polite. We scoff. We’re confused. We’re offended. We like the way some things look, so we look more closely. We take what we need, we use what we can. We go Garbage Picking. We say thank you. Thank you.

It might be noted here that although the fragment was one of Eliot’s wild “inventions,” a necessary consequence and weakness of Eliot’s poetry are these fragments. For whatever reason, Eliot’s poetry is incapable of performing pattern perception. It may be that the specialist undergoes a certain occupational psychosis. The current trends toward reflexivity in nearly every discipline of study would suggest a closedness that  I sometimes assume hurts everything.

Or it may be that Eliot’s prioritization of entire realms of experience either above or below others. Exclusion of this sort, the kind that takes short cuts and calls them standards, is a mutilation. And the perpetrator is often first to be scarred.

But to be as plain as I can be, my goal here has been to define the terms and conditions for Eliot as an American. America faces some special conditions. We’re founded by slaves and idealists and—the combination of the two—entrepreneurs. The numerous paradoxes of American culture often find their home in the tension between an egalitarian proverb and the reality of the creative elite. Eliot’s poetry reflects a very specific reaction to the poet-as-a-person-who-must-get-up-and-work-everyday. For Eliot, poetry is a spiritualization of luxury. It’s the finest things, it’s the time to enjoy the finest things, it’s the burning that comes with acquiring the acquired taste. It’s the confusion thereafter, when possibilities for praxis need practice.

For choosing to write about Eliot, I have also noticed that many of my poets-in-arms borrow Eliot’s snobbery and use it against him. Yes, he is a big dumb white man. Yes, he was racist and sexist and anti-Semitic and a royalist if not a fascist. Still, it seems to me that one of the dangers of not engaging with a strand of thought is that it seeps into your own with you being able to detect its presence.

And the possible lesson from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is that we agree on a canon, not The Canon, or even a tradition with the same guiding principles. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot hands us his own canon. This idea, that what we read can be completely private and completely public might be useful. Or a canon with the potential for flux would be nice, one that changes as needed. Certainly a canon that would include all of the voices marginalized for centuries. But a canon is there for a reason: The Community. If we are talk about the same things, if we are to really talk at all, we must have some commons between us. Straight people should endeavor to understand other sexualities. Asians should read Hispanics. White people should read black writers. Men should read women. Women should read men. Black people should read white writers. Hispanics should read Asians. The queer community should endeavor to understand other sexualities. If democracy is to exist let all permutations therein dance around a bit. This is the lesson for democracy of T. S. Eliot, the fascist.

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.

I dally. It is one of my strengths. I remember when I was ten years, driving to Boston in a groggy, once-flooded luxury Mitsubishi and telling my father, “Sire, it is summer, the windows are locked in the up position, and the engine’s heat is seeping through the vents.” He responded, “Your mind dallies, Thomas Charles Bair III; it is winter, the windows are rolled down, and the air conditioning is on. And do not contradict me.” “But sire, I am sweating and the juice you packed is boiling as though it were on a stove top.” “Young progeny, will you allow me none of long-driving’s natural silences? If you are warm, remove your jacket and your gloves and trim your beard. And if you are to contradict me again I will be forced to contact Authority Protection Services.” “That will not be necessary,” I replied, “your generous responses are truly my honor.

This is surely incontestable proof of my dallying. It may also hold some of the secrets to my method and purpose as to why I must go around with disposable gloves and a stick and gather the trash of this poem: I am full contradictions (as is the language of The Waste Land), and I am rude to my elders. That is, I am rude to my elders until they reference the local authorities, in which case I defer in reverence (The Waste Land has many authorities on file).

But I suppose my dallying is the reason I write on this ontologically paralyzing poem. Another anecdote: I first encountered TWL in school, duh. It seems until recently TWL was merely a mandatory furnishing of the English Literature 2 and American Literature 2 surveys, and it (TWL) was relatively proud of this standing. I, as I assume most people, encountered the poem in a sort of mad dash to move on to the “next literary movement.” But TWL, a radically condensed epic, refuses to be taught with any precision even in the three classes some teachers devote. How is the epic form reduced into something of nine pages (not counting the footnotes)? This is a question worth asking. TWL makes for an awkward Modern epic—too short and significantly odd to be passed over in a survey, too overbooked and promiscuous to be taught with certainty in a class or three.

More, the poem’s resolution enables professors to flee its fragments without worry. This resolution, that redemption is a wholly personal matter, that the TWL may not even be concerned with our the reader’s redemption, except that it provides us a heap of broken images, cracked voices, and a reading list is secondary to the other, more obvious conceit of the poem. Namely, that book learning (and only by happenstance aestheticism) unites the centuries, heals both cultural and personal trauma, and that the fundamental closedness that Postmoderns go on to high-five each other about for seventy-something years is a potentially redemptive thing. The following is the longest direct quote, aside from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Eliot’s footnotes. It is written by F. H. Bradley, the philosopher on whom Eliot wrote his doctoral thesis:

My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it.… In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.

It should be noted that this quote is attached to the fifth section “What The Thunder Said,” line 411 in TWL. It comes while our hero is in a hole next to the “the empty chapel.” The thunder’s command comes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, thunder here vaguely signifying the coming of water, of renewal to the land (we will talk more about The Fisher King romances next time). In the Upanishad the command “Da” is given to the three orders of being—Gods, Humans, and Demons—and each hear different commands. The Gods hear Damyatta (Control), The Humans hear Datta (Give), and The Demons hear Dayadhvam (Sympathize). Significantly though, the reader of TWL receives all three commands—this works in synchronicity with Eliot’s “melting” of characters into one another throughout TWL.

This specific footnote arrives during the thunder’s command “Dayadhvam.” Eliot goes on to write the lines, “I have heard the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only/We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison/Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours/Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.” He defines The Demon, The Godless One, as the one that is locked in (and according to F. H. Bradley we are all “locked in”). “The key,” that which offers itself as our freedom, is Eliot’s proof that we are indeed trapped in an opaque circle.

But what is most interesting here is that the condition of “locked in” necessitates the modality of sympathy. As if one were not possible without the other. Also consider–and here is the difficulty of translation–sympathy is not empathy, but the difference is subtle. Sympathy is a relationship between things wherein what affects one also affects its other. If one is sad, its other is also sad. Empathy is an intellectual projection that intertwines subject and object. If one is sad, its other understands its sadness.  That sympathy and not empathy is The Demon’s requisite function implies that The Demon must become its opposing circles, not understand them.

And what of the aetherial rumours? Given Eliot’s style, we must concede that asking these sorts of questions to TWL can only be vaguely correct. This is a prime example of Eliot’s masking. “Aetherial Rumours”?—a brittle façade. Eliot uses the techniques of symbolism to paint faces over his meaning, thus giving us the reader a candy shell that can’t be cracked. But it’ll dissolve if we lick it! Conjecture it is. Aetherial rumours translates to something like “holy, celestial chatter that we can’t necessarily prove true.” Given the structure and style, method of arrangement, and basic assumptions of TWL—namely, that ‘public ritual’ has lost all practical meaning fifteen years after Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the rise of popular atheism (Bertrand Russell is alluded to very early in the poem), the post-WWI ruins of Europe, the difficulties involved with romantic love not made any easier by the tattered and grossly sensual whinings of the romantics—these aetherial rumours, I argue, are the Arts and Prophets of times past.

Note that Eliot’s opaque circle is not described as having a limit to its width. By reading the classics, Eliot argues, one’s consciousness expands through time. It’s as though from Eliot’s perspective he stands in the present, and by grappling with the great works of times past, envelopes them, doubling the the radius of his circle into the past, and consequently into the future, minimizing his own, personal involvement with the creation of a thing. The trope of the Prophet is also a theme redoubled in TWL. What’s more, this is just about explicit in his essays. From “Tradition and The Individual Talent”:

. . . .What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

And if we consider ‘The Fragment” to be Eliot Prophet-Artist’s signature, at least in TWL, then, now looking back on the twentieth century, there is a case to be had.

More capable writers have written about Robert Duncan and the circumstances surrounding The H.D. Book, notably the poet Lisa Jarnot whose review I highly recommend. It’s impossible not to concur with her on every point with regard to this, but I can’t speak to such a deep relationship with Duncan. As such, The H.D. Book, for me, was more a lesson on how to read poetry, perhaps at the most extreme.

Divided into three books, the short history of The H.D. Book is a somewhat common tale. One of those pieces that a writer is constantly writing, editing, tinkering, refining, adding to, etc., thus never really receiving a “finished” stamp of approval. Which is the exact way for a book like this to evolve, as it is essentially a record of Duncan’s two-step with poetry. This dance began with H.D. early in his life, and as such, she is present through all his thoughts on poetry and vice versa. Everything Duncan has pondered in poetry must first pass through H.D., not so much as a gatekeeper, but rather like a pair of glasses that put verse into focus for him. Thinking back onto my own experience with poetry I can (and often have) pointed to that first instance of poetic reception, the poet and poem that cracked the walnut of possibilities open. Like a scientist, or a theosophical philosopher scientist, Duncan approaches his walnut from every conceivable angle, often at the exact moment he conceives of each individual angle.

Which of course lends to the overwhelming magnitude of this tome, part of the multi-dimensional narrative going on here. A conversation in constant engagement was never meant to be read a second time. But how could this book have been anything other than what it is? There is no editing Duncan’s thoughts, references, asides, clips of Randell Jarrell and Pound and Williams and Eliot in turn faulting and praising and (ultimately) faulting H.D. again for her digressions against the flow of the academic canon. Duncan comes out firing in H.D.’s honor, though is not a qualifier by any means, casting no stones but rather approaching each point respectfully and discussing it through other evidence, references, and inferences.

The H.D. Book is larger than H.D. or Duncan then, a treatise on reading itself, as something between academic decoding and personal interaction between reader and text. Neither Duncan nor I seek to disparage criticism or academia, but this book doesn’t fill the needs of that style of literary interaction. Rather Duncan is writing down what he researches, thinks, and dreams about while working through H.D. and modernism in general. Book 1 is more akin to the historical reading of H.D. and greek mythology, working through the symbology she presents. For me, Book 2 was more engaging in that it investigated H.D.’s work directly and it was cross-pollenated with and within the work of Williams, Pound, and other and (post-)Imagists. Here we think along with Duncan, dive deep into quotes and references within and between sentences. It can be dazzling just by the enormity of his inquest, and rather than trying to take stock of his many references and asides, I took in this book as a direct call to knowledge.

In terms of describing this book as an argument for reading, though, I was primarily entranced by Duncan’s graciousness and patience. Even taking as long as I did to read this book I felt rushed, as every sentence was a thesis, an argument for the poetic and real legitimacy of the verse of not only H.D. but in many ways the 20th century as a whole. I wouldn’t know where to begin to quote from the book as it itself is comprised of so many quotes, inter-connected thoughts, and seemingly simple.

If nothing else, reading The H.D. Book has left me feeling something of a failure for not engaging so intimately with this art as Duncan had. Which is far from what Duncan would have wanted, I believe. This book is critical but suspicious of academia and the idea of “canon”. He was vested in readability but couldn’t help himself with regard to the density of his work, but such is the price of passion, and this book is the image not only of passion but of poetry’s impact on passion. It’s a life-long affair, and we are lucky to have this collection of thoughts. Though daunting and challenging, they’re intimately readable and inspiring for a poet such as myself. Trust no writer with a shelf that lacks this book, and spare the time to let Duncan show you that to write you must love to read.

Gene-cov-lg

Gene Tanta begins his first book of poems, Unusual Woods, with a 20-page essay that takes shots at T.S. Eliot, Harold Bloom and others. Why does he do this and what is he trying to say?

Surrealism and one of its American progeny, Deep Image poetry, have never been fully accepted. Their stock has taken a dip in the last few decades. But they are still with us, and they shape our contemporary poetry scene arguably as much as any of the other big guns of modern poetry: Whitman, Imagism, Symbolism.

What Gene Tanta has done in Unusual Woods is take the project of Deep Image poetry, which is to recuperate and shape myths from the images buried in our collective unconscious, and make it local rather than universal. In particular, he is assembling images from various fragments of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. (The collective unconscious is of course a Jungian concept made famous by archetypal criticism and the Deep Image poets. It is the idea that the collective memories of the human race emerge in various forms, such as myths, folklore and the like.)

As I said, Tanta makes poetry out of his Romanian immigrant “area” of the collective unconscious. I say it this way because it is different from any of the following: (a) poetry built on the cultural memory particular only to the Romanian and/or Romanian immigrant experience, (b) the rendering of images and myths only for Romanians, or (c) a poetry that has a particularly Romanian (political) subtext. Instead, Tanta realizes that while his personal and Romanian self is reflected in his work, his American immigrant experience (and his generally human experience) is as well. In fact, the images that make up the 13-line demi-sonnets of Unusual Woods are universally human (while being contemporary). And he is creating “myths” that are universal.

So why does Tanta make such a big deal about his heritage and immigrant identity? In effect, Tanta is doing what any Deep Image poet does (or did)—we all make what we can out of the pieces of the collective unconscious that have been lodged in our particular psyches. A Jungian expects no more or less of anyone. The difference between Tanta and the traditional Deep Image approach is that Tanta foregrounds the particularity and individuality of his own memories and experiences. He knows his cultural biography is the lens through which he experiences and makes sense of his American (and generally human) experience.

This is a level of introspection that most of the Deep Image poets cared only somewhat about. (Jerome Rothenberg is an obvious exception, but he is better understood as the arbiter of ethnopoetics.) The others, such as Robert Bly, James Wright, Robert Kelly, are fully invested in the project of finding (somewhat interchangeably) universal and American myths. Also, in as far as they saw themselves as continuing the project of the great modernists, especially the Imagists, these poets were loosely committed to poetry as a universal art form, even if they didn’t take it quite as far as to say a poem exists only as an aesthetic object. These days, our claims about poetry are more modest. We recognize that the role of cultural biography inevitably ties our writing to material, contextual existence.

Recent decades have seen a surge in the “hybrid” poetries of American immigrants. What is particularly interesting about this poetic scene is that Eastern European poets writing as immigrants in English seem, generally, to be keenly aware of the “hybrid” quality of their poetry—they know they have more than one tap root in cultural experience. And yet, they remain ambiguous, or even agnostic, about what the particular components of this hybrid poetics are.

In his essay, however, Tanta offers at least a few concrete explanations. First, he, as an ESL poet, experiences idiomatic language as non-transparent. This shapes his experience of the language, which results in poetry that, like misunderstood idioms, mean different things to different readers: “As a form of linguistic irony, the idiomatic expression itself stands for two things at once, which of these two things the reader comes away with depends on the community with which the reader identifies” (30). This makes our reading of the text contingent and plural.

Another, more significant aspect of Tanta’s cultural biography comes from the mash-up of linguistic elements present within the Romanian tongue—partly Western Latinism, partly mongrelized Turkish and Slavic, Romanian has shaped the way Tanta approaches reality: “My own resistance to binary thinking feels ‘implicit’ and ‘experiential’ . . . and manifests in my practiced refusal to fit into categories of Romanian or American, Poet or Artist, Aesthete or Propagandist” (33). The claim is elemental and common, but it is essential: it’s not simply that different “content” is being inserted into our brains—it’s also that cultural and linguistic features have constructed our consciousness to process the content differently.

Ultimately, though, Tanta wants to have it both ways, and I think he is right. Even though both the form and content of Tanta’s work are particular to his Romanian-immigrant experience, he insists that his poetry is accessible to everyone. His poetry, he says, exists both as aesthetic objects and political propaganda. This is absolutely true about all poetry, not just his own. Inevitably, literary criticism will come to see that literature is always both. Most critics probably know this but have allowed themselves to stray from this obvious fact because the theory wars have created a false dichotomy between cultural and formalist criticism. Tanta brings us back to earth. We all experience texts as both universal and particular—both aesthetic and political:

I will not commit the essentialist error of taking myth of origin . . . only literally or figuratively: both the practical hardships of dislocation and the aesthetic insights that may accompany such cultural shifting go into creating our myths of origin. Cultural identity has multiple and simultaneous histories and motivating factors but this does [not] make it arbitrary. (35)

Later, he writes, “As a poet, I am interested in what the English language can do through how I use it. . . . As a critic, I am faced with the paradox that a poem operates both as an object with aesthetic form and as a process with social content” (36).

Tanta’s essay offers a corrective to the rest of the poetry world. Our readings need to focus on and scrutinize the dialectic between cultural biography and aesthetic form. Tanta claims merely that we need to do so if we are to understand his poetry, but it is not hard to see the wider implications of his argument—this goes for all literary texts. My own sense is that literary criticism has been beating around this bush for a while, even though when we are reading in our right minds most of us would probably concede this fact without difficulty. Many of us are probably already on board with this. Still, there is a notable absence of theory that directly targets the relationship between cultural biography and aesthetics. It’s odd and rather shocking.

Next time I will look at the poems of Unusual Woods, which are gorgeous and demonstrate what Tanta is saying in his essay. It is rewarding to read a poet who is willing explain his poetic approach and is knowledgeable enough to understand it without self-delusion.