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Tennyson

Forgive me if these writings on Eliot sound a bit English in their method and tone but I’ve been reduced to reading an American for the past few weeks, so my folly is at once forgivable. Eliot is, indeed, the most American of poets, if and perhaps especially because he abandoned America. There are other reasons through which we will reach this conclusion. But, to be persistent, ask yourself, or better yet, when I, or anyone, asks you of your heritage, do respond that you that you are, in fact, American? I should guess not. Everyone knows that there is no such thing as an American, except during an election year or a country song. Come now, be plain with me—if I were to inquire as to your nationality would you point at the ground under your feet or walk me to the nearest genealogy section of a library? Better yet, would you tell me what someone told you? You would have to I suppose. The question of heritage in America, that it even is a question, obliges us to do some arranging (which is topical, actually. We are here to peruse The Waste Land.) We are a nation of outlaws, religious extremists, slaves, masters, pioneers, poor and tired, of huddled masses, plunderers, heroes, opportunists, co(dreamers)ugh, and all mongrel formulations therein implied, to say nothing of nation-states. No, we are a nation born of shoppers and service workers; by definition, Americans leave home so as to prefer themselves or leave themselves so as to prefer their home. The previous sentence exemplifies the latter condition—a touch of wisdom and a touch of gibberish. I could continue in this line of reasoning but I can tell that I am annoying you. Rightfully so. I will move on. This is a five part series—we will, together, mature. Aside: if I seem tightly wound, forgive me, this is, again, The Waste Land.

But naturally then, Eliot is the Most American Poet (MAP), having enacted something of an identity pilgrimage, abandoning the Missouri and the cowboy town of St. Louis for New and then Old England. And what do we know of him in England? Firstly, that he would not let a picture be taken in which he was not wearing a three piece suit. Secondly, that his accent was as affected and deplorable as Madonna’s. The two share a bit in common: mid-west origins, a penchant for shopping the faiths, and   for out Englishing the English. What is the English tradition? Measure, reticence, empirical evidence? Good. Eliot out-dueled the English until they erected his memorial in Westminster Abbey next to the graves of Dryden, Tennyson, and Browning; men Eliot spent his life burying.

Witticisms be damned, we do not discuss Eliot as such. True, we can read Eliot as, in the words of a friend, an intentional anachronism, but we could just as easily read him as a Conquistador understood as a deity by the honest natives or an earnest tradesman willing to bargain a few beads for a plot of land. No, we are under the impression that we have, or had, the blueprint for a tradition, and that Eliot considered himself a proper antiquarian. Eliot, it seems, regardless of his intent, was, in truth, an outlier. Does his approach ring familiar? Almost . . . puritanical? Is Eliot, most particularly in The Waste Land, not saying something to the “American tradition” like, “Go and read your books.”? Still, a good bulk of us are on the side of William Carlos Williams:

Then out of the blue The Dial brought out The Waste Land and all our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.

To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated.

Eliot had turned his back on the possibility of reviving my world. And being an accomplished craftsman, better skilled in some ways than I could ever hope to be, I had to watch him carry my world off with him, the fool, to the enemy.”

A nation of mongrels inspects its goods and rules them to be too pure for Eliot. Also here is the oft-repeated sentiment that Eliot is an Academy-sized bully, and this echoes throughout the criticism of his work, regardless of the continent of its origin. Kingsley Amis also felt excluded by The Waste Land‘s density:  “I still feel that Eliot was the member of an exclusive club that didn’t include me.” This is a common mistake mas a menos. For in addition to his stature as the MAP, he is also known the world over as Poet Laureate of Nerds. The duty of the poet for Eliot “is only indirectly to the people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.” We might define the nerd as one who recoils into an ‘idea’ [language] because the ‘thing’ is unbearable and confusing in its demands. Here I am something of an antiquarian, I suppose. But nerds do not have it is easy, that is my point. This is not elitism, but nerdom. Jeanette Winterson will help me elucidate:

When I was growing up poor and Pentecostal in the north of England, books were not allowed in our house, unless they were Bible books or my mother’s mystery stories—not of the miracle play kind, but of the Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen kind. . . . Fatefully, when I was 16, and just as she was about to throw me out of the house for ever, for breaking a very big rule (not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex), my mother made a mistake. She sent me to the library to collect her weekly haul of mysteries—and on her list was Murder in the Cathedral.

She thought it was a saga of homicidal monks. In the library, I opened it—it looked a bit short for a mystery story. I hadn’t heard of T. S. Eliot, but I read the line about “sudden painful joy” and I started to cry. . . .

The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family (I am adopted, so being packed off for a second time was very hard), the confusion of sexuality, and the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat and how to get on with my A-levels.

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Yet it is still true that the bulky musculature of Eliot’s language is off-putting and alienating. My point here is that there is more to Eliot. At his own word, our output governs his place in history.  There are many other writers who had a fond taste for Eliot, including Ralph Ellison, who remarks that Eliot’s work is the closest to the sounds of jazz that he encountered. T. S. Eliot, jazz poet!

In the proceeding study of The Waste Land we will find that if we are reading for meaning in the sense that A+B=C, we are in for task. The difficulties of TWL are manifold. Here are a few potential road blocks (I am sure that you can help me come up with better questions):

 

  1. Already I have alluded to Eliot’s criticism. How and should we at all read Eliot’s prose into his poetry? Eliot, like all big mouths, often contradicts himself (yes, I’m tempted to quote Whitman); if we do read his critical work into TWL, which, when, how, why, where?
  2. The title of the poem alludes to The Grail legends. What does this have to do with the Fisher King? Is TWL positioned within the history of romance lit?
  3. Eliot complicates (2) in the first scribble of his footnotes. Who is Jessie Weston and why is she here?
  4. I’ve heard that Eliot considered the footnotes to be a big joke, that he wrote them in jest because people considered the poem so difficult in the first place. Are they a key to the poem or are they another mask?
  5. Speaking of masks, what is this style? How do we read a line like “to get the beauty of it hot?”
  6. More on masks: I am seeing speakers, but they’re fairly strange speakers. Are there characters in this poem?
  7. Why so many languages?
  8. The poem feels like it is moving to one, big, unified meaning. And yet the last stanza is the most disorienting part of the whole thing? What does it mean??

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam. The first part, by poet and theater historian M G Stevens, appeared previously.

***

Staring out at the audience of the Pentameters Theatre, David Manson as the poet Robert Lowell distrustfully remarks ‘This is a two-way mirror, isn’t it?’  While in Alfred Corn’s play the Bostonian is informed he is looking at a window, part of the work’s triumph is that we obtain a sense throughout that the events we are seeing have been transfigured by a spectator who is both Lowell the artist and Lowell the man, tormented by his past.  Observation, here, is everything.

The ostensible setting of Lowell’s Bedlam is Pitney Akins Hospital, New York in 1949 where the writer is being treated for bipolar disorder.  The director Daniel Ricken, himself a New Yorker, reveals Lowell’s unconscious largely through offstage noises—muffled thumps, groans and sighs—and the insistent repetition of phrases.  Corn’s play has teasing references to his subject’s work too, to ‘very polite’ murderers in a Federal Detention Centre in Greenwich Village, one of whom is documented in Lowell’s poem ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’;  Czar Lepke was a gang murderer Lowell made into a dignified version of himself by giving him ‘a ribbon of Easter palm’.  In Corn’s searing drama, Lowell views himself as having ended someone’s life, too, through having been at the wheel in a car crash that left his first wife Jean Stafford disfigured and in considerable ongoing pain.

Most strikingly of all Corn’s summonings of Lowell’s poems, there is the avowal ‘I myself am Hell’, a phrase from Milton’s Satan famously adapted in ‘Skunk Hour’ with the addition ‘nobody’s here’.  That poem of Lowell’s describes a panorama of decay, finishing with the disturbing animals of the title, their  ‘moonstruck eyes’ red fire’ contrasting with ‘the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church’.  In Lowell’s Bedlam, the antagonist is very much the Catholic Church he tried and failed to get away from through divorcing Stafford after the accident; his new wife, the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (played by Lowri Lewis), is able to offer scant defence against the onslaught through her tender Southern tones.  The hellish eyes of those skunks loom large in the red light that suddenly floods the sterile bareness of the set when Clair Elsmore as the nurse transforms into Stafford to berate him for abandoning a ‘disgusting patient’ who became ‘too unattractive for a poet to love’.

Nevertheless, the balance of Lowell’s Bedlam shifts markedly with the arrival of Elizabeth Bishop in Act Two.  Bishop—whose quiet cheerfulness and wit are brilliantly captured by Hannah Mercer—provides the model for an alternative approach to both living and writing.  Red becomes simultaneously the colour of not only hell but of the absurdly huge scarlet nose of a Rudolf toy she gives him.  It is both and neither.  Palm leaves are exciting for her not as religious symbols but as part of the secular, tropical flora she includes in poems that reveal the workings of the mind through the observations it makes.  For all her own guilt about her institutionalized mother, she laughs freely about the way she repeatedly contradicts herself, being content to reside in flux.

Perhaps Corn’s boldest move is to explore this idea in ‘Mate’, a Bishop poem centred around chess that is actually the playwright’s invention.  Reciting the poem to Lowell, Bishop tells him that ‘If he found no white pieces, the black couldn’t see / To maneuvre, becalmed in ambiguous fog / With a chessboard and pawns who’ve turned aimless and gray.’  The risk pays off because not only is the poem immediately accessible and relevant to the audience but it is true to the metaphysical cleanness and playfulness of early Bishop poems like ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’ and ‘The Gentleman of Shalott’.  The galloping anapaestic metre is perfectly suited to both the poem’s depiction of a knight’s three-square move in chess and the alleviation of a great deal of the play’s tension once Lowell is in conversation with his great friend who may be, it hints, deeper in his affections than either of the women he has married.

Tennyson’s own writing is used to explain Bishop’s different way of looking through her remark that she is ‘immune’ to his physical charms like ‘”Mariana in her moated grange”’—a misquotation that is also a subtle reference to her lesbianism (in 1948, Lowell had told friends of his plans to propose to her).  To Lowell’s objection ‘That’s not the best Tennyson’, she counters ‘I’m not taking on responsibility for the whole poem, just the “moated grange” part’.  The individual phrase and the moment of saying it aloud take precedence over any grander schemes as so often happens in Bishop’s poetry with its love of details and focus on what occurs in the instant of perception.  All acts of observation are partial and reveal as much about the observer as the observed.  It is a portrait Corn renders with great affection, and the play is almost as much about Bishop as it is about Lowell.

Interspersed throughout is the loquacious narrator Dick Jaffee played by Roger Sansom, an unemployed story editor for film who looks back on his time as a fellow patient.  Far from being a simple comic counterweight, Jaffee as a stranger is a clever device for teasing out those parts of himself Lowell is still keen to present to society (he cannot resist the mention of his Pulitzer Prize) and situating the play within a broader dramatic and political context.  There is Bedlam not only in Pitney Akins but outside it in Hollywood’s blacklisting of Communist writers.  Their dialogue also enables Lowell to make a spirited defence of poetic drama—with his Marxist interlocutor adeptly puncturing, for all his dizziness, the Bostonian’s characteristically elevated notion that every writer should exist away from the realm of paying the bills.

Lowell’s Bedlam is an arresting play that brings to life the psychological nuances of two of America’s most celebrated twentieth-century poets with fire and insight.  To its very last, offstage word, it refuses to leave the audience with easy choices to make about what they themselves have observed; how hopefully or pessimistically we view the play’s conclusion says as much about us as it does about Lowell or even Corn.  It urges us instead merely to remain open to Bishop’s idea ‘that you have to live with both light and darkness in your experience, that they’re somehow … reciprocal’.