Monday, November 17, 2008

Quick now, here, now, always—

I really liked this piece about TS Eliot by Jeanette Winterson.

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Let's not confuse this with realism. The power does not lie directly with the choice of subject or its social relevance - if it did, then everything not about our own contemporary situation would be academic to us, and all the art of the past would be a mental museum. Art lasts because it gives us a language for our inner reality, and that is not a private hieroglyph; it is a connection across time to all those others who have suffered and failed, found happiness, lost it, faced death, ruin, struggled, survived, known the night-hours of inconsolable pain.


Also, couldn't agree more with Cathy Park Hong of Harriet Blog about serious unproductivity during the days (weeks, months) leading up to the election.

4 comments:

YogaforCynics said...

Actually, I had at least one professor in grad. school--a well known poet and critic, who was quite open that he thought poetry should be for a tiny segment of the population--specifically, people like himself who had a privileged upbringing among only the most highly cultured (and very, very white) people....I actually respected him for the fact that his insufferable elitism was out in the open, unlike that of academics I've known....

YogaforCynics said...

There was supposed to be a "most" before "academics" in that last comment....

Lyle Daggett said...

The link in your blogpost didn't work -- I think it has an extra "http://" at the beginning. When I deleted one of the "http://"'s at the front of the URL, then it worked.

I enjoyed Winterson's essay, even in the spots where I disagreed -- I lean probably more sharply away from a religious outlook than she seems to, and she seems more reluctant to admit a consciously historical outlook into poetry than I am. But I found a lot of what she said about Eliot, particularly about The Waste Land, quite insightful.

I first read Eliot (in the fall of 1971) when I was 16, the same age Winterson was when she first read him, according to her essay. At that point in my life I'd been writing poems for a couple of years. I sought out Eliot's work -- found his Collected Poems in the high school library and checked it out, and spent the next several days reading The Waste Land, the first thing of his I'd read. I knew nothing about the poem, just had heard people mention it, and it sounded like an interesting title, so I decided to find it and read it.

I found the poem difficult, incomprehensible in spots, though wasn't daunted by this, just persisted doggedly, reading a little of it, putting it down, picking it up again a little later, all the way through to the end. I finished reading the poem -- the final "What the Thunder Said" section -- during the noise and fanatical chaos of a Friday morning pep rally in the high school auditorium, eight or ten cheerleaders up on the auditorium stage attempting to stir the student body into a homicidal frenzy toward the football team of another high school in advance of the game later that day.

I sat in a seat by myself, half hidden behind a pillar toward the back under the balcony, more or less oblivious to the noise around me.

I've never forgotten the remarkable juxtaposition of Eliot's "The Waste Land" and the high school pep rally -- I've always felt that one became a metaphor for the other, though have never been quite sure which one for which one, or maybe both.

Diane K. Martin said...

Lyle, thanks for telling me about the link. I tried to use Blogger's tools for the first time on that post. Next time I'll just do it manually. Although I could have proofed it, couldn't I have?

I enjoyed your story about your encounter with Eliot. It seemed quite the best way to encounter any poetry -- on your own, and yes, in direct juxtaposition with life.

I have a strange Eliot story myself. I was taking Modern British and American Poets in college and was having all of them thrown at me -- Auden, Stevens, Frost, Pound (?), Roethke, can't remember who else -- all male, of course (this was the '70s) and Eliot. And I had no capacity for most of it. I was eighteen and had read St. Vincent Millay and Dylan Thomas. Well, for the final, we were asked to compare/contrast Frost and Eliot and say who was the better poet and why (it was our only grade for the class). I quite stupidly and aggressively said Frost was better because Eliot was too difficult, or some such thing. It gave me a D+ in the class.

The next year, I was living in Paris and picked up The Four Quartets. I had very little to read in English, and it hit me right between the eyes. It wasn't the so-called religious aspect of it, but the music, the images, the everything. I read it so many times that year I had it memorized.

So there you have it -- not quite as good as your tale, but also a coming to Eliot.