Friday, August 04, 2006

Eliot as savior/rescuer

I'm considering teaching my final semester class on the challenges of using the bit of diction "I" in a poem--not just what it means theoretically, which is still tension-filled and fraught as the recent Blevins/Hong debacle on the Poetry Foundation's website shows--but what it means on a craft level to introduce the premise of a speaker, represented by the word "I".

So I'm collecting quotations from various places about the ways poets conceptualize the self and the not-self in their poems. Everyone has a different take, relative to their own projects, yet there are, I'm finding, striking lines of similarities. Right now, I'm certainly taking the basic position that the "I" is a construct, and not necessarily a psychological representation of the author, yet some of the quotations I've collected show that navigating that divide has been, and continues to be problematic for any number of persons. It's fascinating, although I don't want the class to end up in a sort of fist-fight in the theoretical mud in which people still seem to have so much at stake. I think a healthy dose of having respect for other peoples' projects and not using your own project to exclusively reject those of others would be a nice dose of oil upon heavy waters.

In that respect, I'm re-reading some of Eliot's key essays. He's a critical figure here because of his dominance of poetics for a significant part of the 20th century--his development of the idea of the mask, the objective correlative, the whole ball of wax. I'm finding his essays much more interesting than I remember them to be--it's been a good 15 years or so since I've read them with any great attention.

I started with "The Metaphysical Poets" just because I felt like revisiting his contribution to resurrecting them, not because he provides a lot of insight into my potential class topic in that essay. But in his advocacy for H. J. C. Grierson, who had just published his anthology of the metaphysicals--which is still a far finer volume than Helen Vendler's--I note Eliot's good sense.

As an aside, Grierson is one of the great poetry editors of all time. His two-volume edition of Donne, published by Oxford UP and out of print for years, "Donne's Poetical Works," is THE definitive word on Donne. If you have any interest in Donne, you simply cannot refuse to visit that edition. Grierson's scholarship is impeccable, his sense for the material uncanny, his definitions of archaic words exacting, and his notes the most accurate relative to the period. The Penguin edition, which is always assigned for coursework because it is cheap and available, is just such a washout compared to Grierson. First of all, the editor of the Penguin volume modernizes spelling and punctuation, which screens out all manner of complexity in the text on a very basic level. To apply modern punctuation to a poetics that used "pointing" or breath marks is just barbaric. And puns are frequently available only in the original spellings.

At any rate, Eliot's championing of Grierson's superb work was exceptionally important.

Eliot's essay on the Metaphysicals is also a reminder of how various poetic schools or movements fall out of favor or are derided, and how much effort it takes to repair them. When Eliot writes, "The phrase [metaphysicals] has long done duty as a term of abuse, or as the label of a quaint and pleasant taste. The question is to what extent the so-called metaphysicals formed a school . . . and how far this so-called school or movement is a digression from the main current. Not only is it extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry, but difficult to decide what poets practise it and in which of their verses," I think of substituting the words 'confessional poets.'

I've gotten kind of interested in how the work of the so-called confessionals is a reaction to Eliot's poetry of impersonality, which may have gotten misrepresented an colder over time, as Eliot aged. As Eliot is copies and modeled upon, I suppose poetry loses an electric current of feeling. I'm not convinced that Lowell's, Plath's, or Sexton's projects deserve the opprobrium they've received. In fact, I often think their constructs of the self and "I" are much more complex then their detractors would have us believe. I don't think their utterances are simple equations of the self and the "I", especially in the case of Plath. And when I re-read Sexton's All My Pretty Ones, it really appeared to me that she was developing persona poetry in which the fictional/historical figures of Macbeth were operating in tension with the more modern "I" that spoke the poems. I think the projects of the so-called 'confessionals' have been radically oversimplified, perhaps to protect Eliot.

But even Eliot, in "The Metaphysical Poets" speaks movingly of the need to meld "thinking" and "feeling", the intellectual and emotional aspects of the poet's work. He sees Donne as the perfect example of a successful integration of the two: "Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience." Eliot, of course, wants to amalgamate disparate experience into some kind of whole, although his work often belies that. Say, as opposed to postmodernists who want to allow the disparate to remain disparate.

My main problem with Eliot is that he cannot seem to imagine anything coming after his own poetry: he's shoring up the fragments of Western civilization in order to preserve it--but it is over for him and its fragments can refer us only back to the past, not forward to the future. Which is why he makes such a satisfying last major author in the lit. canons in English departments. I find it odd that English departments are still ending the history of literature with Modernism.

And this is why W. C. Williams is such a critical figure--he also sees the world as he knows it as gathering disparate fragments, but his project is to build new wholes out of those, not just mourn the past, which is how I really see Eliot's thematic project. Williams gives us someplace to go--Eliot just seems to sit there sobbing. Or that's how I see it at this snapshot moment in my thinking.

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