Culling the Poetry Classics: T.S. Eliot

Apparently April truly is the cruellest month.

The Poet

Thomas Stearns "T.S." Eliot (1888-1965); Anglicized American;  born in St. Louis, Missouri. One of the most important poets of the 20th century on either side of the Atlantic, especially as an exemplar of the Modernist tradition that would dominate much of the 1900s. Winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature. Died in Kensington, London, England, at the age of 76.

The Books

T.S. Eliot was not an especially prolific poet, and his work was published in many different formats during his lifetime, so it's difficult to reduce his poetry down to a series of discrete published "books." He also wrote many plays that either included or were written in verse, further complicating matters. The volume I used was The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot, a British edition that seems to be the only one that includes all of Eliot's known poetry and doesn't cut off at a specific year. It isn't divided into "books" so much as sections, the titles of which I've included below:

Eliot and the ascent of Modernism signal the beginning of the mainstream reading public's slow separation from poetry over the last century.
  • COLLECTED POEMS 1909-1962
    • Prufrock, 1917
    • Poems, 1920
    • The Waste Land, 1922
    • The Hollow Men, 1925
    • Ash-Wednesday, 1930
    • Ariel Poems
    • Unfinished Poems
    • Minor Poems
    • Choruses From 'The Rock', 1934
    • Four Quartets
    • Occasional Verses
  • OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS
  • PLAYS
  • APPENDIX: POEMS WRITTEN IN EARLY YOUTH

There's a lot going on in this 600-page compendium, but only the first 230 and last 20 pages are what we would generally consider The Poetry. Full disclosure: I didn't read all of his poems, though I did get through a good 85% of them. I have two excuses for this: first, I got married this month, which took up a fair bit of my time; and second, I didn't like them.

The Highlights

As is true with any poet, several of T.S. Eliot's poems are much better/more recognizable/more accessible than the rest. I've picked out a few of the best:

You'll Love Him

...if you want to be considered cultured, well read, and poetical in the English-speaking world—or you're a huge fan of cats.

You'll Loathe Him

...if you want to have any fucking clue whatsoever what it is you're reading without relying on an author-provided "Notes" section—and you hate cats.

Read It or Leave It

This was a mistake.

Last month we all had a grand time with the Irish Modernist W.B. Yeats, and I got cocky. I thought I knew what I was doing, thought that transitioning from Yeats to Eliot would be a genius idea considering how much the two had in common:

  1. Both were Modernists
  2. Both were influenced heavily by upheaval surrounding a world at war
  3. Both were born in the late 19th century and wrote in the early- to mid-20th century
  4. Both spent considerable time in England despite being born elsewhere
  5. Both were friends with that douchebag Ezra Pound
  6. Both are often referred to by their initials

It seemed like Eliot would be a natural transition from Yeats, like the Irishman could almost act as a gateway drug to the American-turned-Englishman and his more difficult verse. The only thing I hadn't anticipated was hating Eliot's poetry.

I had read The Waste Land & Other Poems already and wasn't much impressed, but that was before I had embarked on my recent Poetical Journey of Discovery, before I'd really begun reading and studying and analyzing poets and their careers as opposed to individual poems. I assumed that I was simply naive or uncultured or not as smart back then. Maybe I'm still naive/uncultured/stupid, but I still can't get into Eliot. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is really interesting, but the rest of the poems in Eliot's first collection are completely forgettable, as are 99% of the rest of his non-"The Waste Land" work.*

*Poetry only, of course; I haven't read the plays or essays.

"The Waste Land" is only memorable because of how incredibly overrated it is. Everyone and their mother considers "The Waste Land" to be one of the best poems ever written. It's up there with "Howl" and "Song of Myself" in that golden pantheon of poems everyone loves to tell people how much they love. But it's crap. There are some decently interesting ideas thrown around, but the entire thing is annotated, with a tidy little section of notes at the back where Eliot explains how smart he is to the reader. Without those notes (and even at times with those notes), it's little more than a pastiche of obscure classical references floating together in a smoggy cloud of post-war despair.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

That is a really, really cool way to open a poem, and it's the best that Eliot does with imagery in the entire work. Where Yeats marries his ever-looming question of Irish identity in the modern age with vibrant scenes and colorful images, Eliot tacks random abstractions to a corkboard. Every now and then he stumbles across a fantastic line like "April is the cruellest month" or "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper" ("The Hollow Men") or "Let us go then you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table" ("Prufrock"), but he ultimately descends into an expensive vocabulary of abstraction.

The Final Verdict

I'm being harsh. Clearly this was all a huge departure from the flowery Romanticism that dominated much of the 19th century, and it is certainly a step further into Modernism from Yeats, who was a good two decades older. Contemporary English-language poetry wouldn't be what it is today without T.S. Eliot. The question, though, is whether that's a good thing. After Eliot, there wasn't another English-language poet Nobel Prize winner** until Nigerian Wole Soyinka in 1986, almost 40 years later.***

**Samuel Beckett (Ireland, 1969) and William Golding (UK, 1983) both wrote poetry, but they didn't win for their poetry. Faulkner (1949), Russell (1950), Churchill (1953), Hemingway (1954), Steinbeck (1962), White (1973), and Bellow (1976) all wrote in English as well, but not poetry.
***To be fair, since Soyinka's win, Joseph Brodsky (US/Soviet Union, 1987), Derek Walcott (Saint Lucia, 1992), Seamus Heaney (Ireland, 1995), and Doris Lessing (UK, 2007) have all been English-language winners who write poetry, though I believe Lessing won primarily for her fiction.

There is certainly nothing wrong with other forms and other languages winning capital-L Literature's largest prize, but poetry seems to have gotten stuck in a quagmire of detachment, a bog of aspirational inaccessibility since Eliot. It's gotten this reputation of being unnecessarily difficult. Would I even need to be writing a column on which poets to read/avoid if 20th-century poetry had gone a different way? Why does Eliot try so hard to sound so smart, and why has that convinced so many poets to alienate so many readers?

Obviously this is a very large conversation, and I'm reducing it to horribly oversimplified generalizations, but Eliot and the ascent of Modernism signal the beginning of the mainstream reading public's slow separation from poetry over the last century. We're still going to cover a couple 20th-century poets in the next few months, but at some point we're going to jump back to the Romantics and the Deep Classics, and this modern-day obsession with abstraction will come back into focus.

Oh, but I haven't actually given a verdict on Eliot. Well, it's complicated. "The Waste Land" and "Prufrock" almost seem like required reading at this point for anyone who wants to act like they know anything about poetry, but if you're not too concerned about that, then don't bother. Eliot's poems aren't particularly enjoyable, and they're too overly complex to be easily translated into modern-day emotional, political, and social struggles. Stick with the cats to get your Eliot fix. I hear the musical is pretty good.

Next Month!

In the bright and sunny month of May we're going to tackle one of the more depressing poets of the last century: Syliva Plath. The Great Confessionalist's poems can be most easily perused in the Harper Perennial Modern Classics volume The Collected Poems: Sylvia Plath, edited, rather controversially, by the husband who allegedly drove her to suicide, Ted Hughes. Read along! It'll be fun!****

****extremely sad

Image of Complete Poems and Plays
Author: T.S. Eliot
Price: $21.00
Publisher: Faber & Faber (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 608 pages

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Comments

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like April 27, 2015 - 7:30am

I've seen a backlash against 'The Waste Land' last couple of years. It's weird, it's not for everybody, though it is widely taught and referenced as though people should care about it. I guess it's natural people would react against it. Complexity does not necessarily amount to greatness; but, likewise, neither does accessibility.

My favorites of his are 'Ash Wednesday' and 'Four Quartets'.

Gordon B. White's picture
Gordon B. White from Seattle (for now) May 4, 2015 - 8:57pm

It might help if, to use D. Foy’s terminology, you think of The Waste Land as “gutter opera.”

The column keeps circling around the question of why “Eliot tr[ies] so hard to sound so smart,” but The Waste Land isn’t Eliot’s wank session, it’s his therapy session. Eliot is – like everyone – a ball of nerves and obsessions, contradictions and inspirations, both highbrow and low culture  (“O o o o o that Shakespearean Rag”).  The Waste Land is how he tried to work his way through that.

Eliot was, in fact, smart.  He spoke several languages, had PhD in philosophy from Harvard, was well versed in Eastern and Western history and theology, had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of English literature, etc. etc.  This collage of poetic forms, voices, and influences is how Eliot could break apart and re-assemble these pieces of himself that otherwise he hadn’t the vocabulary - or, quite possibly, the will – to address directly.  The Waste Land is not intended to be a exercise in pretension (at least, not unduly so – remember, this is Eliot) but rather it’s the raw exposure of his “nerves in patterns on a screen.”

The Waste Land, and really all of Eliot’s other memorable poems, is Eliot exploring and explaining himself and striving for some sort of reconciliation.  While Prufrock is much more linear (but analytical) and the Quartets are sedate in their abstraction, The Waste Land is a tangle of existence cut apart and re-ordered; the juxtapositions, the obsession with history, this swirl of polyglot voices, taking on the role of Tiresias, are all how Eliot explores himself and, in doing so, his role in the contemporary world.