I’m really trying to like T.S. Eliot. But mostly because I think I should.
People I respect swear by him. I’ve always found him fussy, obscure and generally not worth the effort.
Now, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his death, Eliot seems to be everywhere. He’s got me surrounded!
Then I read where one of my favorite living writers, Mary Karr, calls Eliot her “Secret Boyfriend,” and I think I need to do more to overcome my benighted condition and check this guy out.
This is the same Mary Karr who wrote her famous essay, “Against Decoration.” As is says on the back of her book of verse, “The Devil’s Tour,” she calls her own poems “‘humanist poems,’ written for everyday readers rather than an exclusive audience — poems that do not require an academic explication to be understood.”
Amen to that, Mary! But how am I to square that with your literary crush on Eliot? He’s the guy who added seven pages of explanatory notes a the end of “The Wasteland.” Notes that really only help if you’ve recently brushed up on your Latin, Italian, French and German!
I realize there are gaps in my education big enough to drive a tanker through. So the problem must be with me, not Eliot. So I dip my toe in, gingerly.
He’s got some good lines. Memorable lines.
Early in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” he gives us a fantastic extended metaphor of the yellow fog as an animal “rubbing its back on the window panes.”
But then he goes and opens up a poem with this eight-syllable-one-word line: Polyphiloprogenitive.
Which, sends me scurrying for a dictionary. And by “scurrying for a dictionary,” I mean I Google the word. Apparently it means “extremely prolific,” which does not help me much in apprehending the meaning of Mr. Eliot’s poem.
And then there’s his aggravating habit of introducing a poem with a quote from another author. In French. Or Latin. Or Greek.
To the casual observer, it would appear that Mr. Eliot was trying to reduce his audience down to the smallest number possible. Today, that number must be even smaller, made up of just the handful of professors who to have miraculously managed to get a classical education before our institutions of higher learning went all soft in the head.
I do not want to sound like one of those Know-Nothings who mistrust anyone with book-learnin.’ But I know from my day job that if you want to get your stuff read and understood, you must write clearly and remove the friction for the reader.
Can it be possible to write profound poetry and have people understand it at the same time?
I think I’ll start with “The Hollow Men” and see how it goes. It’s short and written exclusively in English. I think I’ve got a fair shot as extracting some meaning from it. My goal is to gain a little momentum, move on the “The Wasteland,” and then be strong enough for “Ash-Wednesday” by the time we get to week of Easter this year.
We’ll see if my patience holds out.