One way of thinking about successful form in the Modernist Era is as a measure of the degree of failure by the writer to achieve what he/she may have originally envisioned. There is no better example of this than Eliot's The Waste Land. A careful analysis of the history of the poem's composition, and the "editing" which Ezra Pound did of it, with Eliot's blessing, reveals that its form underwent drastic revision over the period of its unfolding. Like others of his generation, Eliot emulated (imitated) the styles of a number of English poets, including Pope, Milton, Gray, Dante, Spenser, the Elizabethan Dramatists, etc. Much of the material which was eventually excised from The Waste Land (or as Eliot had once thought to title it He Do the Police in Different Voices), by Pound, or Eliot himself, consists of satiric colloquial ballad-style jingles, some scatological.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Capacity & Limitation - Failure as a Creative Act
T.S. Eliot in his youth
Ezra Pound in his youth
Based on what Eliot published, critics have traditionally interpreted the poem's fragmentary structure as a deliberate attempt to summarize the modern age as a picturesque literary ruin, a sort of archeological site, decayed in time. The poem's separate parts are thus specimens of speech, unfinished sequences of longer works, dramatic remnants, sections of music or ceremony, etc.
Eliot's biggest difficulty as a poet was in conceiving of a form which would both express and transcend his skills as a writer. In his case, those skills lay in the realm of traditional verse composition. But one could hardly foist off an updated version of The Rape of the Lock, or Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, without seeming altogether antediluvian. Eliot realized that the presentation of his satiric versions of older styles of verse could throw his talent into sharp relief, if it could be seen against a background (or context) of a quasi-dramatic comedy.
Pound had set upon the trick of expressing, for instance, among other things, sardonic irony (Villon) or pastoral erotic naivete (Cavalcanti), by employing "antique" mannerisms and forms. This awareness of the quality of burlesque inherent in adapting traditional patterns, either as updated rehearsals, or as amusing pastiche, is crucial to an understanding of the poem that Eliot and Pound jointly framed.
Eliot's earlier verse--Prufrock and Other Observations & Poems (1920)--is a series of dramatic voice monologues. It's clear that Eliot feels most comfortable speaking through this technique, which allows him to employ traditional verse forms while mimicking the emotion and attitudes of other (earlier) times and conditions (Victorian, Medieval Britain, etc.), while distancing himself from the implication of direct personal utterance. This distancing is the key justification for his work; as Eliot's career progresses, he will play titillating games with the fictional alter-ego of his writerly persona ("Mr Eliot"--the mincing old prig of clerical cut).
It is clear from the shape of Eliot's career between about 1910 and 1922 that the appropriation of his poetic skill to a dramatic framework is the primary determining factor in the construction of his reputation as an innovative Modernist writer. In the Thirties, this tendency would ultimately lead to experiments in verse drama. It will be seen, though, in retrospect, that it was his limitation as a poet that led him away from the sort of formal experiments that Pound, Moore, Stevens, and Williams would try. Eliot had no epic to write, because his talent as a writer was confined to the performance of closed forms. He would have been incapable--if indeed such an idea had ever occurred to him--of writing poems of a kind such as The Cantos, Moore's "Marriage," Williams's Paterson, or Stevens's "Sunday Morning," because formal innovation at that level was outside his interest and abilities.
None of this means that the value of Eliot's work is any the less, as a consequence of the fact that he would have been incapable of the kind of formal innovation which his contemporaries essayed. His ability would have been remarkable in any time, though perhaps better adapted to 14th Century Tuscany, or 18th Century London. In the case of both Pound and Eliot, there is an open rejection of the artistic conditions of the modern age, in preference to earlier models of civilized refinement. In Eliot's case, this meant writing poetry of a kind more suitable to another time and place, but offered up as stale routines against the backdrop of modern decadence and chaos. But Eliot's writing doesn't infer chaos and decadence--that's just the critical frame through which it is presented.
What strikes me is that one of the cornerstones of Modernist "innovation" is actually a patchwork mending of the disorganized fragments of a frustrated verse caricaturist into a loose scaffolding of "movements." Eliot was never an innovative writer, and as a critic, his tastes were almost wholly anti-Modern. How odd that he should continue to be viewed as one of the great Modernists, when his talents lay in an imagined past. Eliot's failure as a Modernist was salvaged by a device that was essentially a conceptual framing--and it was, to the degree that we can verify, partly accidental and largely the doing of another man (Pound).