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Inheriting Eliot.

Where is the work of T. S. Eliot these days? Is his work being taken up by the generations of poets coming up? And, moreover, what's the situation for inheriting Eliot among his grandchildren and his latter-day great-grandchildren?

Once upon a time there no doubt was what Delmore Schwartz called the literary dictatorship of T. S. Eliot, a dictatorship whose orthodoxies entranced, captivated, defined, refined, and terrified his children. My sense now is that the Eliot juggernaut in America has been overtaken, in the land of the living, by the influence, of Wallace Stevens, a line Harold Bloom has traced well behind Stevens and on forward into the land of Ashbery. It's a powerful, imaginative, linguistically talented, and romantic lineage. Eliot's orthodoxies overturned and by now in many quarters almost ignored, it's a perfect time to be reading and inheriting Eliot without the terror.

Not many poets have the trust funds they so richly deserve, and the main vein of inheritance for poets is the poetry of the past, the poetry of those who came before, the poetry poets now read, internalize (even memorize), and move on with. "The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the guts of the living," wrote Auden in his elegy to Yeats, and in this reading, eating, remembering, and stomaching we imagine and so go on to enact what our futures might be as poets, what our future poetry might become. Something moved us to animacy and emulation in the first place, in some Scene of Instruction, some Falling in Love and GoingDown within the vast conformity and insane tribal democracy of language, in First World. We're born, come to fruition, and wither: that's the story. And within those three vast (and short, and swinish, and basically unknowing) movements, we inherit. We also pass on.

Critics do not determine the canon; writers do. Critics may judge the contest, explain, interpret, historicize, and other things (such as writing their spiritual autobiographies in an orgy of belletrist aesthetics), but it is the poets who marry each other's work forth, who carry each other's work into renewed greatness, and this happens through the kabuki dance of influence and through the love, bickering, devotion, and battle with the work that we have chosen (and been chosen by) in First World.

The opposite of love is not hate, as Rollo May noted; the opposite of love is indifference. Now that the need to directly hate the dictator has subsided for a moment, who is paying attention to, who is inheriting Eliot's work, and towards what through-line?

I don't think there's any centrality or consensus in American poetry at the moment, and to say things are balkanized is a truism all of us have lived with for a long time, perhaps since the day of Robert Lowell, our last poet of national consensus--in perhaps our last post-Vietnam sense of nation.

In 1973 Harold Bloom gave us The Anxiety of Influence, for which I, for one, am eternally grateful. As Donald Hall has said about the work of Freud, it's as nasty as life itself is, and so is Bloom's notion of influence. A sickness unto death, an influenza, a situation that persists until, as Edgar Allan Poe had it, "the fever called 'Living'! Is conquered at last." Whether you believe what's written in The Anxiety of Influence or not, whether you see .writing as a battlefield or a playground--as a vast, titanic, Oedipal and Electra struggle within the family romance or as a fount gleaned in utter originality from an individual's teeming brain--Bloom's theory is a force to be reckoned with.

My two heroes in literary criticism, which is something I do to myself when I am lonely for good conversation, have been Harold Bloom and Hugh Kenner. Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era so moved me to tears with the sheer electricity of its intelligence that I moved to study briefly with Kenner while a graduate student in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins in the late 1970s. While I was there Bloom stopped by, and Bloom did blow me away. I hated what he had to say about influence, just as I had first hated what I took to be the orthodoxy of T. S. Eliot. The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is indifference. I soon recognized in my opposition to Bloom the gale force of rapport, and I took the influence of influence in.

Harold Bloom and Kenner could not be more different, and their work has been a useful and fecund contrary for me ever since. Bloom's scene of instruction is Freudian, while Kenner's world, in keeping with the Pound and Eliot of The Pound Era, is vortextual. To me Bloom's dark world has been an unflinching cauldron of realism itself, while Kenner's sense of vortex has been both enclosure and horizon.

It's always astonished me a bit that Bloom has managed to steer so clear, comparatively, of Eliot and Pound, but the terrain of Bloom's taste has generally been the romantic sublime, and for important reasons in Eliot, including Eliot's sense of impersonality and his penchant for austerely undeluded realism, Eliot's work veers significantly away from romance, as I understand the term. Bloom appears to love personality in literature, as did, say, Walt Whitman--and personality, as we know, is anathema to Eliot.

I think Eliot saw personality as what comes to us from the socially-conditioned world, the taking of tea and ices; Eliot saw personality as something that threatens to engulf us, to speak for us, and in speaking in so few dimensions to debase the dialed of our tribe. Picture a loudmouth strolling down an American high school hall, waving a hefty political hello to everyone, always running for the office of communication and approval. That's personality. High school itself is personality, blown out into a hormonal misshapenness. Since social life seldom matures beyond high school, we are too often trapped in a world of personality: TV personalities, celebrity personalities, yak and yammering personality. To Eliot such a cacophony was an embarrassment, a hindrance, a not particularly interesting mask, and even, finally, a terror--perhaps even the terror.

Eliot wanted a mask that would go over into character. Let's face it: Our social world may not mature, but individuals sometimes do mature; they do, cross over. Perhaps even within the tradition of New England transcendentalism so near and dear to Eliot always, individuals do, in sexual communion or even in erotic terror, cross over into real character and real persona, even into a character so real and enduring as J. Alfred Prufrock. And, to extend this a bit, personality can even evaporate, through a transposition peculiar to our times, into Rimbaud's "I is an other," wherein personality is not only escaped but inscaped into its opposite, freed unto its mask. And there we have the work of Frank Bidart and other fine monologists.

One of the earliest historical moves against Eliot came in the person and poetry of William Carlos Williams, who proclaimed "The Waste Land" a disaster for American poetry when the poem was published in 1922. Williams said "The Waste Land" had again delivered poetry back over to the academics. This was true then and its truth persists even now, and perhaps there will always be village explaining critics given to allusion-picking "The Waste Land," gnawing on its notes and making of the poem a-problem-to-be-solved. Eliot responded to Williams largely by ignoring him. The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is indifference.

Mary Karr brilliantly comes to terms with "The Waste Land" in her introduction to this year's Modern Library edition of The Waste Land and Other Poems. She traces her own reading of the poem from her days as a Texas schoolgirl, first unearthing the allusions, then putting them aside and sustaining a life of reading "The Waste Land" on what really came to her first, the notes and moves of the musics therein. The same thing basically happened to me. But my brief here is not to make a case for "The Waste Land." For me it comes in a distant third behind "Four Quartets" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in the trinity of Eliot's greatest work.

When I was an undergraduate the tyranny of Eliot seemed visible, audible. Explaining is one of the more humane things we do to and for each other, but many of my professors, even those who were poets, seemed crushed under the burden of explaining and doing their version of living up to the Eliot orthodoxy. Eliot achieved this orthodoxy (and I think he damned well meant to achieve it) not only through his poetry (which is actually, historically blown clear of orthodoxy both by its sense of hallucinatory apocalypse and the lyrical yelp of its personal, gone-impersonal, gone-historical grouse), but especially through his essays and his role as an editor. (His role as an editor, by the way, has been brilliantly traced in a little-known book by Aghi Shahid Ali, T. S. Eliot as Editor.) Mr. Eliot, of clerical cut, turned out to be a very stern father.

Not many seemed to catch Eliot as a vaudevillian, Eliot as a sly dog, Eliot as what Ezra Pound called "the Possum," and I can see now how impossible it must have been for the children to see this. The sexual timidity and hysteria in the poetry was enough to scare me a way as a young man, and I veered countervailently towards the Ginsberg of the time and that other great poem of apocalypse, "Howl."

Quite luckily I happened upon a teacher at the University of Maryland who was a classicist, a Buddhist who chanted The Diamond Sutra quietly to himself on long walks, and he gave me Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, and Pound--the entire core of the Modernist mottle--intravenously. Rudd Fleming (called Red Flaming in Charles Olson's Maximus poems) was a bemused, self-evaporative actor of a teacher who gave us literature by reading it to us, then sitting down, listening to us read what we'd written, and then getting back up and giving us the traditions from which our own writing, largely unbeknownst to us at the time, had come. Fleming had tea with Pound for ten years on Tuesdays at St. Elizabeth's mental hospital when Pound was incarcerated there for mental unfitness on a treason charge, and together Fleming and Pound translated works such as Elektra, which Princeton eventually published and which even saw production in New York recently under the direction of Carey Perloff, daughter of poetry critic Marjorie Perloff, wh o also taught at Maryland at the time.

Since Fleming was not a poet and had no need to be oppressed by the Eliot orthodoxy as a poet, he was wonderfully free to give us Eliot as a magician of what Rudd called "classical consummations" and "the great endgame of the European mind," and he gave us, the grandchildren, a glorious, even impish Eliot to inherit, an Eliot not at all counter vailent to Ginsberg or to the counterculture to which many of us swore allegiance at the time. Rudd gave us "The Waste Land" not as any orthodoxy. but as a mode--a montage, a mobile, a collage, and a cubism of many nudes descending many staircases--and as an elliptical mode which had (and still has) horizon as a form for the poets of our time.

In fact, one of the most useful things to me as one of Eliot's grandchild-inheritors is the utter viability of montage form, captured recently and poignantly in books such as Donald Hall's The One Day and Anne Carson's Glass, Irony, & God. It's still coming on strong, in deft hands.

And, beyond that, I'm heartened and buoyed by the three great phases in Eliot's work, enacted and embodied by "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "The Waste Land," and "Four Quartets." "Prufrock" seems the great poem of slaying, satirical Youth, as it vivisects and disembowels its aging parent in a portrait of sheer mockery. (I missed the tone of inverted, near--drag queen campiness in my first reading, and to miss this tone and subtext in the poem is nearly to miss all.) Auden said that in his ideal poetry academy one of the main exercises for young poets would be satire. What better way to inhabit a work, internalize it, chew it, and spit it out for your own purposes, clearing space, aesthetic space, for your own work as you go? Aesthetically, it's a little like making love to one parent and killing the other?

And "The Waste Land," though I consider it far the lesser of the three poems, is still to me the great poem of Middle-Aged fatality, complicity, breakdown, and finally even responsibility in its ending of Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata; its Give, Sympathize, Control; and in its Shantih shantih shantih, that peace which passeth all understanding. In a world of fragments shored against ruins, and mortality itself is such a beast, "The Waste Land" is even strangely a poem of governance, at the end of the world that is also that lurid reversal into a parenting submission.

And finally "Four Quartets" is, to me, the meditative monument of Old Age, the crown set upon a lifetime's effort, and the great poem of reconciliation, mortality, and a maturity one can not only hope for, but build. It's scorched earth, but it's made the journey and come through.

I once studied briefly with Amiri Baraka and he, surprisingly to me, said that he admired Eliot's poems because "Eliot was never mashed by experience." "Four Quartets" is that poem most unmashed by experience, and most made to last. Its many polymorphous delights include its being a casebook of prosody, but its real achievement is its musically endgame equipoise and its intelligent, credible wisdom.

I don't feel I am working with nor for "the mind" of Europe or even "The West" in my work, even though that too is an inheritance I treasure. "The, mind of America" is the mind in which I know I write, and I hear in that mind Dr. Williams also, the Williams of "the pure products of America go crazy." The New Criticism of Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, the main purveyors of the Eliot orthodoxy among Eliot's sons and daughters, still gives me the creeps, though I do thank them for their worship of the poem on the page, and the dream of a work of art outside the world of history. But nothing is finally outside of history and its gossip, and poetry is our deepest gossip.

Eliot has been for me my most abiding poet, largely because he has been my most countervailent poet. Even as he was high church, a Royalist, and a classicist, I have been the opposite. The opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is indifference, and even a countervailent rapport can be finally an utter rapport.

One of the great imperfections of Eliot's life and work, of course, was his anti-Semitism, and perhaps it's this that has put so many off his work. The anti-Semitism is there in the lecture he gave at the University of Virginia, where he said that his ideal society would not be inhabited by too many "free-thinking Jews," and it's there in a few decidedly minor and otherwise flawed poems in his oeuvre. To me there's no excising that dumb prejudice, and to those who expect perfection in their artists I can only say I hope the judgment of history be not too heavy even upon us. In "Four Quartets" Eliot wrote, "the shame/ Of motives late revealed, and the awareness/ Of things ill done and done to others' harm/ Which once you took for exercise of virtue," which is a humanity which might chasten us all, even the Eliot who finally knew that "humility is endless.

I've come to think Eliot's notion of pure impersonality was something of a ruse, but a very useful ruse, nonetheless. Art no doubt comes from personal origins, but any work that does not obtain for itself the dimension of the impersonal, the transcendence of the personal, if you will, really does not attain the greatness of a work of art from which and in which readers will find their necessary communion.

In her third book on Eliot, T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, Lyndall Gordon extensively rewrote her first two biographies, Eliot's Early Years and Eliot's New Life. In her foreword Gordon writes,

I was driven to this, in part, because I believe that we are now ready to view Eliot from the vantage point of the next century, more detached from the spiritless disillusion of his own time and less beguiled than his contemporaries by his normative masks, with a keener sense of his strangeness, his prejudice, and extremism. The aim, though, is not to reduce Eliot to the level of others in an extremist century, but to follow the trials of a searcher whose flaws and doubts speak to all of us whose lives are imperfect.

Gordon's defining and splendid biography of Eliot is a good place to start on Eliot after taking in the poems. Perhaps because we are now so balkanized and comparatively free of reigning orthodoxies, it is a good, even an innocent time to take up Eliot again. A culture is in reality an aggregate of individuals, not an abstract whole to be subdivided into groups, and Eliot was one hell of an individual. He and his poems were and are in it for The Long, Haul, for grandchildren beyond the children, and that calling constitutes, as Eliot wrote, "A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything.)"

LIAM RECTOR'S books of poems are American Prodigal and The Sorrw of Architecture. He directs the graduate Writing Seminars at Bennington College and lives in the Boston area.
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Publication:The American Poetry Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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