Saturday, September 3, 2011

On Last Looking into Eliot's Collected Poems

Eliot, as Walt Disney, introduces
"Mickey Among the Nightingales"
on The Wonderful World of Color.
I’m convinced that my previously held conviction that T.S. Eliot (pronounced "Z'eliot," as the "T" is silent), with the notable exception of two, maybe three poems--in particular "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," long a guilty pleasure--well, I don't want to say "sucks," but yeah, he kinda does, you know.*

One reason is Eliot's anti-Semitism (e.g., his various allusions to The Jew of Malta & other depictions of Jews in a bad light). Admittedly, Eliot was a product of his time & in those days, anti-Semitism was all the rage. By that logic, however, one could argue that if everyone else is banging your daughter, you may as well bang her, too. Sorry, perverts, but popularity doesn't make it right--even if she's ripe & practically begging for it, what with her trendy black jackboots & swastika tramp stamp.

Ok, one may ask, granted that anti-Semitism bites the big one, how does Eliot's biting it reflect negatively on his poetics? Simply put, content matters. Technique & craftsmanship alone don't great poems make. Poetry uses words & words have meanings. Get a dictionary if you don't get that. 
Eliot, as Bob Hope,
in The Big Broad-
cast of 1938

Speaking of content, another fault in Eliot's poetry lies in its didacticism. If he's not berating Jews, he's crowing like Simon Peter about Christianity. Both "Ash Wednesday" & "Choruses from The Rock" seem little more than overt attempts to proselytize the reader. (Personally, after Tooth Fairy, I didn't think The Rock could sink any lower, but "Choruses from The Rock," in my estimation, is worse even than Race to Witch Mountain.) **

As for craftsmanship, I don't know which I like less about these poems--the desire to proselytize readers or the shocking lack, line after preachy line, of imagery. Didn't Eliot say he preferred the Metaphysical poets to the Romantics because the former attached emotions to images? What happened to the objective correlative? The only image is the one in my imagination of Eliot in grand ecclesiatical robes perched at the pulpit reading his sermon while I slip, not so quietly, out. ***

Eliot, as Jack Benny, strikes
a familiar pose in It's a Mad,
Mad, Mad, Mad World
 In an oft-repeated story, Eliot gave pages & pages of rambling, disconnected lines to fascist friend Ezra Pound to make sense of.  In retrospect, in light of Pound's Cantos, this strikes me as hilarious. Reportedly, Pound cut huge chunks of trifling tripe; the leftovers we know today as The Waste Land. It makes my head swim, as if I were being waterboarded, to contemplate what material Pound felt too extraneous to leave in The Waste Land, a poem without a center, but I've essentially avoided the doubly long pre-Pound draft, published as a facsimile after Eliot's death. To be frank, I don't need more obscure, willy-nilly references to understand Eliot is a pompous ass, though I'll confess I sometimes have a cockeyed curiosity to read the unedited version, much like one will rubberneck a freeway car wreck for a passing glimpse of somebody else's tragedy.

Eliot, as Prof. Wagstaff, at the 1955
London Caedmon Readings
Perhaps a more apt analogy in this case would be the propensity to examine one's finger upon its removal from the nose to see just what was up there, given that Eliot's constant arcane allusions serve to showcase his snooty, snotty, superior intellect. As for his often satirized footnotes, my "favorite" includes a rather long passage--in Latin, of course--from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which Eliot cites for its "anthropological interest." The specious reasoning for the citation as well as its length--part of a footnote, remember--reminds me of my undergraduate essays, in which, under time constraints, I'd add particularly long quotations, pertinent or not, in order to to make the required page limit in order to maintain my GPA. For Eliot, though, it seems a matter of maintaining pretensions.

In short, beneath much of his poetry lies the same simple, moralistic possum: the only hope for breaking the vile & vicious cycle of birth, copulation & death--the curse of humanity--comes via God through a once-in-a-lifetime offer. Some restrictions may apply. Please check your ethnicity for availability.


* "T.S." stands for "The Shit." I lied beforehand.

** The Rock has actually appeared in worse movies, such as . . . just about any of them.

*** What the thunder really said: Shaddup shaddup shaddup.

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