Louise Glück. On T. S. Eliot

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Among the major literary figures of the early twentieth century, A T.S. Eliot seems to be, in aesthetic terms, the easiest target. The charges against him, cumulatively, make him out to be the enemy of the life force. What characterizes the life force appears to be improvi- sation, variety, frankness, vigor, personality, some version of the com- mon touch, some sense of communal affiliation. Or, alternatively, the kind of linguistic inventiveness which can be taken as the thriving organism's throwing off of constraints. The opposite of the life force is the classroom.

These charges were given pithy expression by William Carlos Williams, who might or might not be happy to find his own distastes currently institutionalized. Which is to say, it's Willians who is taught eagerly, by both scholars and poets, whereas Eliot is taught with animosity or pity. At least, this is my impression. I find what seem to be manifestations of a pressure to choose very interesting, since an advantage of literature over life is that the heart of the reader can be given wholly and simultaneously, even to writers who detested each other. But Williams's hold on readers often seems what he wanted his hold on Pound to be: absolute. Meanwhile, response to Eliot seems not unlike response to Milton, response to anything that seems to be both irreproachable and unfriendly. It is also possible that Eliot's particular spirituality, his intense wish to be divested of tempo- ral facta, may seem to contemporary readers not simply irresponsible but immoral: an indulgence of privilege and omen of our collective ruin.

I love both these poets, all the time. It may be useful to say a little more about Williams. The democratic expansiveness of the poems may not have found a parallel, in the life, in broad tolerance New Jersey was a refuge. But it was the correct refuge; it could be called real life. Williams had a villager's suspicion of the alien: his ge- nius made art out of the village, but his broader perceptions seem a little cranky, a little petulant. He took things personally: this was the glory of his work; it was also, from time to time, a limitation of char- acter. Williams's hunger for Pound's favor was not necessarily the source of his dislike of Eliot, but it raised dislike to the level of rage.

That Williams didn't like Eliot is hardly surprising. Williams did not found the cult of the apparent, but he practised it as well as any poet I can name. He had a moral commitment to the actual, which meant the visible, whereas it was Eliot's compulsion to question that world. "Unreal city' as opposed, say, to January Morning. It is important to keep in mind the fact that Eliot was human: this accounts for the helplessness in his verse. If Williams thought of the real as that which was capable of being registered by the senses, Eliot, in his deepest be- ing, equated the real with the permanent. Under which system, earth does not qualify. To be human and feel this is to have certain fond at- tachments seriously undermined.

Among the great figures of the time, Eliot was, in the work, the least materialistic, the least consoled by the physical world. Because what he wanted was either to see through the material to the eternal (in which case the material was an obstacle to vision) or to experience a closing of the gap between the two worlds. Only through the clos- ing of that gap between the actual and the ideal could the physical world attain meaning, authority. But a mind sensitive to this discrep- ancy is unlikely to experience a convincing union of these realms.

The impulse of our century has been to substitute earth for god as an object of reverence. This seems an implicit rejection of the eter- nal. But the religious mind, with its hunger for meaning and disposi tion to awe, its craving for the path, the continuum, the unbroken line, for what is final, immutable, cannot sustain itself on matter and natural process. It feels misled by matter, as for the anecdotes of natu- ral process, these it transforms to myth. Reading Eliot and Williams in juxtaposition, you see something more profound than an aesthetic disagreement. Both write poems as speech (which is why Eliot never seems to me literary), but communication in Williams is not designed to forge enduring bonds between one being and another. What Wil- liams values is energy, he is effervescent, many-mooded: on occasion, didactic, but at other times, sublimely unconcerned to be heard. The absence of the twin, the exact counterpart, authenticates his experi- ence. Williams's speech remarks the immediate; it has confidence, an- imation, gusto. In this kind of speech, living and dead are the critical distinctions. For Eliot, there were other distinctions: true and false, for example, or the distinction between a single right and a proliferation of wrongs. Where variety interests Williams, choice is Eliot's obses- sion. And every choice is vulnerable to some absolute, external judg- ment. This explains, in part, the fastidious hesitations: when the compulsion of speech is to find and say the truth, which is single be- cause inclusive, all utterance must be tormented by doubt. The capacity of such a mind for suffering has to be enormous.

In Williams, loneliness is a song. Williams, on the page, is not so much intimate as natural; he expects to be understood. Eliot begs. The anxiety of the need and the anguish of effort make for a desperate intimacy; as powerful a bond as can be imagined is created with the reader. Very different from the Roosevelt intimacies of Whitman, the monolith with the microphone, just as Eliot's austere spirituality is different from, say, Rilke's abandon. To read Eliot, for me, is to feel the presence of the abyss; to read Rilke is to sense the mattress under the window. The addiction to rapture seems, finally, less a form of abandon than of self-protection.

The goal, in Eliot's monologues, is communion. The problem is that an other cannot be found, or attention secured. Almost all the poems are beset by caution. Sentences falter, major ideas are regularly subordinated, delayed, qualified-Eliot's speakers either can't speak or can't be heard; their persistence makes the poems urgent.

I read this poetry for the first time as an adolescent. And under- stood it immediately, by which I mean I felt a connection to it. I heard the tone. If there is a criticism to make, it may come out of that: not that the work is 'academic', whatever that means, but that in the in- tensity and unchangingness of its emotion it is adolescent. And I sup- pose that, among sensitive readers, there must be many who do not share my taste for outcry. As an adult, I discovered that there is felt to be a division, in the Eliot oeuvre, marked by his conversion. The poems continue to seem to me more alike than they are different, the impact of the conversion not so very great. What has driven these poems from the first is terror and need of the understandable other. When the terror becomes unbearable, the other becomes god.

Louise Glück. «Proofs & Theories – ESSAYS ON POETRY»

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