Part 1: You Can’t Go Home Again
With National Poetry month here, I thought it a good time to look back on the first poem that made poetry exciting for me. I like to think that somehow the first stanza of that poem inspired making April National Poetry month (though the Poets.org FAQ gives a less romantic, more practical reason). It begins:
April is the cruellest month, breedingT.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, “I. The Burial of the Dead”
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
How prescient Eliot seems in this plague year when April promises to be the cruelest month. Perhaps a quarter million dead, millions sickened, and those are the rosiest projections. But then he composed his great poem in the aftermath of a world war and a worldwide flu pandemic. How interesting (and sad) to see his time echoed a century later. The same ideological foolhardiness, the same rabid partisanship, the same political obliviousness. How little besides technology has changed, and even that is just an extension of early 20th century vision.
I was an undergraduate at New York University when I first read Eliot. It wasn’t through a literature class, which though I majored in English Education I generally avoided, but through my own reading. I met Eliot in A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his early career in Paris in the 1920s:
[Ezra Pound] worried about everyone and in the time when I first knew him he was most worried about T.S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so had insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet.Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, p.177
I took more journalism courses than literature courses. Like certain kinds of young men aspiring to write the Great American Novel, I took Hemingway as my model. Word was that Hemingway got his writing style by working as a newspaper reporter. So I studied journalism and tried to write like him. Just coming out of adolescence, taciturnity and reticence were my default modes. Hemingwayish prose seemed a perfect match. But I confused coolness with originality. His peculiar prose style reveals deep emotion in a way I wasn’t prepared to do at the time.
Hemingway liked Ezra Pound, and Ezra liked T.S. Eliot. So I read Eliot. At some bookstore in Greenwich Village — I haunted them all — I found two thin volumes of Eliot’s poems: Four Quartets and The Waste Land. It was The Waste Land, with its intellectual pretensions, voluminous footnotes, a-lyrical lyric, bad dream imagery and ballsy ambition that captured my imagination. It was the Great American Novel compressed into fourteen pages. And its undercurrent of fertility myths made it sexy like a Led Zeppelin album. But Eliot was no rock star. For a guy who wrote such a macho poem, he was oddly milquetoast, uncharismatic and seemed repulsed by the earthy wetness of sex with a woman.
My affinity for Eliot was even odder. I was no disembodied esthete. I loved women, and especially their earthy wetness. But at twenty I had no interest in the neurotic stylings of Sylvia Plath or the feminist rage of poetic furies like Andrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf. It wasn’t that I disliked their work. I read plenty of it, admired much of it but was indifferent to all of it.
On Pinterest, I played a little game. I set up a board called “Writers I Love.” On it I would pin only writers and poets I read substantially and actually loved. No vanity posts. That board ended up containing almost exclusively white male writers from the 19th and 20th centuries. The only exceptions to whiteness were Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata. The only exceptions to maleness were George Eliot and Diane Di Prima.
I’ve read more widely since, but my literary home remains with those men. They’re the ones who can still reach me. But as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again. Nor can you go back in time.
Photo by Abigail Batchelder; Lic. CC by 2.0.