Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Breeding and the Dead Earth

Am re-reading T. S. Eliot's essays for the first time in years. I first read Eliot's poetry when I was in high school, on my own--I liked it. I still like it, mostly, but I have to say I've found myself at odds with the pedantry of his critical stance. In my edition of the selected essays, Frank Kermode, a contemporary critic whom I greatly respect, talks about the necessity of Eliot's pedantry to his own poetic project, thus the insistence.

I'm not reading all of them, but was particularly struck today by "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) as I tried to absorb it on the SuperShuttle back from BWI airport while the driver, who had probably West African roots, judging by his accent, was playing some kind of devoutly Christian pop music with a Caribbean/African flair. Which was, when you consider the later Eliot's intense religious conversion, oddly appropriate.

I found Eliot oddly sympathetic, but also a bit bombastic and strangely uncertain. When I first read these essays in college, I remember thinking how difficult they were--first of all, he calls up all sorts of references for which I had little or no framework. Second, he's simply fearless about making blanked statements of what he perceives to be fact; the natural authoritativeness that so maddened Virginia Woolf is in full force here.

Eliot notes that, "What happens [as the artists works] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." This catches my eye as it has cross-currents with the ekstasis that Anne Carson has been writing about. But, for Carson, this surrender is more of a joyous unification of the self and the work and the object/subject of the work. It is erotic, obviously, charged, passionate. But not for Eliot--this is all about punishment (self-flagellation) for Eliot--it is about 'extinction.' Carson adopts Weil's coined term 'decreation' and tells us that it is not the destruction of the self, but the unmaking of the self such that the self can merge with something else.

In the Eliot quotation above, you can easily substitute the word 'mother' for 'artist' and the effect is largely the same: artist-guilt, mother-guilt. Yes, we mommies aren't really doing our job until we erase ourselves.

But that's not the point. [And here I have to recreate a huge part of what I just wrote because somehow my fingers slipped and the blog entry disappeared and I've only been able to recover about half of it.]

Eliot's big target here is Wordsworth--he even quotes the snippet, 'emotion recollected in tranquility' without naming Willy. WW says that in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads to discuss how the poet must distance, well, HIMself from the strong emotions that generate poetry. But Eliot isn't interested in the Romantic sublime, or in emotion, period. He says that the business of the poet is a 'concentration'--"of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all." This is interesting, because Eliot opens the door to the mundane and quotidian as subject matters--things to which no profound emotions are usually attached. This seems to me a service to the global poetic project.

But why this project must fully and whole-heartedly reject emotion is beyond me. Of course, we're dealing with the younger Eliot here, and not the Eliot of Four Quartets. And earlier Eliot talks about the poet not searching for 'new' emotions, but to use the 'ordinary ones'. And I read this and cannot help thinking of how profoundly class-biased Yeats, Eliot, and Woolf all were. I can't help but read this and think, 'well, not our sort, dear.' This is a shutting of the door.

Eliot writes, at the conclusion of this section of the essay, "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not he expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things." I can identify with the wanting to escape from emotion sometimes, ironically enough, on the basis of my own personal experience with my child, but that act to me is a shutting down of everything that makes me alive and makes my poetry alive. It is a deadening, so why Eliot desires a deadening to write is beyond me. It seems to be his generative method--April is the cruelest month, right? breeding lilacs out of the dead earth. That's what his poetics is all about--breeding lilacs out of the dead earth. His mind needs to be dead in order to write.

To be fair, he introduces all of this by remarking at length upon the definition of tradition--that 'tradition' is not just upper-class stuffiness (here I am paraphrasing), but a serious merger with the stream of the past--think of Woolf's scull rowing on the Thames in A Room of One's Own, part of the larger stream of life and human endeavor. It is an "historical" sense of the work.

But to me, this is all Eliot imposing his work methods on the rest of us, as though who died and made him king? He concludes by saying, "The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done." I am thinking that what he means by 'impersonal' is outside or beside the self--other than the self. Yet it is not what Carson is talking about when she talks about ekstasis. Eliot's surrender is a sort of death--to be impersonal means to destroy the personal, to bury it. To make it disappear. It is about as productive, in my eyes, as the dozens of mothers I see around me who must, must, must, essentially extinguish themselves and their interests in order to feel they've achieved some specious 'goal' of promoting their child's agenda and interests. It's unhealthy. I can only live through my child. I don't exist apart from my child.

It seems to me the work and the life should have more of a joyous coexistence. What about those of us who need to feel, to be alive, in order to write? This is Eliot's flaw, I am thinking. I think Eliot wants to be more dead than Plath. At least Plath's death wish takes her through an emotional fire and furnace, wherein her materials are 'concentrated' and formed into something new. Is Eliot just talking about process and trying to make it theoretical dogma?

And again, that problem of the self and the not-self. The "I" and the not-"I". Navigating this division between the self/"I"/world of experience and the not-self/the world of existence is the tension, the vacillation in which poetry is made. Finding the distance from your own head, within your own head. Nosce teipsum [did I spell that right?], but not too well. This is Eliot's version of how to do this. "I am every dead thing" says Donne in "An elegy upon St. Lucies Day, being the shortest day."

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