Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Me and T. S. Eliot--R. I. P.

T. S. Eliot

The study of T. S. Eliot is now decades behind me, fifty or sixty years, most of a lifetime, and I'm not at all bothered by that confession. Not that I didn't appreciate mining his oh-so-formidable poetry way back when; but for me at least, understanding him was like climbing hand over hand up a stone wall without the use of one's legs--which is to say, just about impossible. Eliot himself famously maintained that poetry had to be difficult, and for me, his was, desperately so.

Apparently there is a brand new two-volume study of Eliot. A review by Marjorie Perloff in the Weekly Standard put me in mind of the trials I had with Eliot's "The Wasteland," as well as other poems of his, poems equally impossible to understand and therefore far more difficult to appreciate than the professor (I don't remember who taught me my Eliot in grad school) thought proper and fitting for an English major. Two new volumes of critical work. I'm not in line for copies.

The real problem back then was that I knew I was supposed to like him. You weren't really part of the English major family if you didn't. I had to climb the Eliot Parnassus or be forever relegated to literary peon-dom. So I did. I tried. And tried. And tried. 

But all the while I couldn't help thinking that any poem packaged with its own footnotes was cheating, wasn't a poem at all, wasn't music but scholarship in verse, if the lines could be called verse at all--and totally arcane scholarship at that.

For years I taught "The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock" with relative success, at least by English prof standards. Since no student in the class understood anything at all about what was right there before them in the text, I could sound brilliant by opening up so many impossible lines. 

"Do I dare to eat a peach?" The famous last line of that poem offers English majors grand opportunity to unpack meaning like true academics. As a prof--I'll admit it now--it was fun to be smart and to make the students feel smart too, to offer them membership in the club. 

I know that Eliot's "The Wasteland" helped me understand the deadly moral fatigue felt in the Western psyche after the madness of World War I. I know that "The Four Quartets" offered me a look into an empty soul, and that "Ash Wednesday" began an answer which does more than suggest Eliot's own transformation/conversion to Anglicanism.

I know all of that, but I don't "like" the poetry. 

So I couldn't help feel a little liberated by Perloff's evaluation that "when Eliot was good he was very, very good but when he was bad he could be quite horrid," although I might have turned down the volume of the first bald assertion in that sentence.

What seems clear to me now is that I was blessed to be an English prof in what might be considered the Golden Era of English teaching, a time when people--in the club and not so--actually believed that what the poetry of T. S. Eliot said carried more wisdom than almost anything else dressed up in words. I started my college teaching career when all college students in this country had to take American literature, every one of them, hard as that is to believe today. I taught literature when wise men and women believed that every college student should know the work of Ezra Pound.

That era is over. 


But I don't know that we didn't do the right thing in making sure the only the people who have to read T. S. Eliot today are those who really want to. Eliot was, without a doubt, the kind of elitist who's hard to love and hence hard to believe. I'll grant you that he deserves the long Wikipedia page he's got. I won't fault him there. But our worship?--nah.

No part of my dalliance with Thomas Stearns Eliot do I remember fondly. May he rest in peace. I just hope I'm still a member of the club--emeritus status.

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