Monday, June 18, 2012

The Wasteland

I recently read vol. 1 of Eliot’s letters—a little like reading an epistolary novel. My hero is not TS, heroic worker that he was, but poor little Viviene who seems to have done her best only to be shunted off finally to an insane asylum and heartlessly abandoned. Heartlessness, is what a lot of Eliot’s poems, including The Wasteland, are about. What did Eliot mean when he said that his marriage brought no happiness to his wife or (evidently) to him in whom it created the state of mind in which he wrote The Wasteland? I’ve never seen that remark carefully elucidated. I don’t doubt that Eliot’s unhappy marriage is in there–though maybe not in the Game of Chess section which Viviene read and seems not to have taken exception to—but I think the Great War, which is never mentioned  in these letters, has to be a major and tragic presence in The Wasteland. Isn’t that—and the wars to come -what the Thunder is talking about in the final act of this five-act tragedy?  “I am moved” says the voice of Preludes, “by fancies that are curled Around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing.” I, for my part,  have always been moved by this heartbreaking poem—which Eliot messed up with his stupid and irrelevant notes; why couldn’t he leave his (and Pound’s) masterpiece well enough alone? I’ve also been put off by his use of foreign languages—with a conclusion in Sanscrit?—why isn’t plain English good enough?  W. C.  Williams was right to be enraged by all that stuff. And now I find that I have to take some of it back: I love the lines about the girl in the hyacinth garden—and the man who has let her down—framed by those lines in German from Tristan. How does one talk about poetry like that? For that matter, how can one talk practical criticism about this poem at all?

I read Christopher Ricks’ Decisions and Revisions, which smart and intelligent as it is doesn’t to tell me as much about Eliot’s poetry as I had expected and hoped for. Two-thirds of the book is about Eliot’s criticism, which no longer interests me—annoys me in fact: I’ve come to dislike the flat, dead, omniscient tone he puts on.  How could Ricks have got the  balance of his book so wrong? The poetry is what matters—the greatest poetry of the 20th century— not the criticism. The last section, on the delicacy of Eliot’s poetic revisions is wonderful and enlightening. I wanted more and didn’t get any more.

I came across Preludes and Prufrock at the age of 14 in a highschool English textbook.  Of course I didn’t know what to think, I wasn’t thinking at all, but the sound of that poetry was some sort of epiphany (in hindsight); it got caught in my inner ear and remained there. I fell in love with the sound of Eliot’s poetry as later I fell in love with the sound of Frost’s—but not Stevens. Eliot and Frost write about stuff that’s real—there’s no sense of a slight-of-hand man in Frost and Eliot; Stevens writes about poetry and the imagination.  Well, these are real too but not to your or my common reader. Stevens was an esthete and wrote for esthetes. Once in a while, he talks about realities as in Sunday Morning, The Death of a Soldier and  Hibiscus on Dreaming Shores (which is about one of the great realities, boredom), but mostly not about anything that matters to ordinary people.
That’s why snobs like Poirier, DeMan and all the others made so much of him. W. C. Williams missed his mark. He should have reserved his animus for Stevens instead of attacking Eliot.

When we were in China (1983-84) both Kathy and I taught courses in American Lit to the young instructors at Hebei University (in Baoding). The one poem they all wanted to read was The Wasteland. That’s what tney knew about and had lived through, the nearly total collapse of Chinese ciivilization. Of course there was no way we could explain it to them—we couldn’t even explain it to ourselves but it didn’t matter; the poetry told them what they already knew. Now we, in the West, are seeing for ourselves what they had already experienced. Eliot was ahead of his time as well as of it.