Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month
Like many millennials, I was educated, if that’s the right word for it, on the internet. The online music critics and antiwar bloggers of the mid-2000s who were my teachers did not introduce me to T.S. Eliot, but they made sure that I had reasonably detailed opinions about “Apocalypse Now Redux,” the 2001 update of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic war movie. This meant that I had heard Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” which the film features in a hammy (and on the whole rather effective) reading by Marlon Brando.
Not long after, I found a copy of the old Harcourt edition of Eliot’s “Collected Poems” in the library. “The Hollow Men” and a dozen other poems committed themselves effortlessly to my memory, where they have been lodged ever since. In those days, for reasons I could not understand (and would not wish to understand even now, lest the magic be dispelled), the poems seemed to have an incantatory power. I distinctly recall sitting at the back of the school bus and repeating, mantra-like, the following lines from “The Waste Land”: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?”
If you had asked me then, I would have imagined that the centenary of “The Waste Land” — published in book form 100 years ago this month — would be a big to-do. I don’t know exactly what I would have envisioned (parades? presidential decrees? a Sphinx-size statue of Eliot erected somewhere in the Great American Desert?). But it would have been more lavish than the quiet commemoration provided by the handful of recent publications from university and trade presses, of which the most enviable is a full-color facsimile of the original drafts of “The Waste Land” with Ezra Pound’s characteristically terse editorial notes (“Too loose”).
Modest as the festivities have been, I am certain that in 100 years there will be no poem whose centenary is the object of comparable celebration. This seems to me true for the simple reason that poetry is dead. Indeed, it is dead in part because Eliot helped to kill it.
Of course poetry isn’t literally dead. There have probably never been more practicing poets than there are today — graduates of M.F.A. programs working as professors in M.F.A. programs — and I wager that the gross domestic chapbook per capita rate is higher than ever. But the contemporary state of affairs is not exactly what one has in mind when one says that poetry is alive and well — as opposed to, say, on a luxe version of life support.
I’m hardly the first person to suggest that poetry is dead. But the autopsy reports have never been conclusive about the cause. From cultural conservatives we have heard that poetry died because, for political reasons, we stopped teaching the right kinds of poems, or teaching them the right way. (This was more or less the view of the critic Harold Bloom, who blamed what he called the “school of resentment” for the decline in aesthetic standards.)
Another argument is that the high modernist poets and their followers produced works of such formidable difficulty that the implicit compact between artist and audience was irrevocably broken. It is certainly difficult to imagine many of the suburban households that once contained popular anthologies such as “The Best Loved Poems of the American People” finding room on the shelf for Pound (“‘We call all foreigners frenchies’/and the egg broke in Cabranez’ pocket,/thus making history. Basil says”).
There is probably some truth to such arguments. But the problem seems to me more fundamental: We stopped writing good poetry because we are now incapable of doing so. The culprit is not bad pedagogy or formal experimentation but rather the very conditions of modern life, which have demystified and alienated us from the natural world.
Permit me, by way of argument, a medium-size quotation. Here are lines — not especially memorable or distinguished ones, but serviceable enough — taken at random from the second volume of Robert Southey’s “Minor Poems” (1823):
Admit it: Your eyes, so far from being fixed, are already glazing over. How many Americans even know what woodbine is? By sheer guesswork one might infer that Southey meant some kind of ugly creeping plant. But what about all this holly-hock business, yon or near? Are the stems white? Habituated as most of us are to skimming text, we find ourselves wondering imperceptibly what Southey’s point was.
This is not to suggest that poetry is supposed to be a textual version of nature photography or the rhymed equivalent of audio descriptions for the blind. But the relationship between nature and poetry is basic and elemental. (“Nature,” the critic Northrop Frye wrote, “is inside art as its content, not outside as its model.”) When Milton described the fallen bodies of rebel angels — “Thick as autumnal leaves that strew the brooks/In Vallombrosa” — he was borrowing an image from Dante, Virgil and Homer, all of whom employed the shedding of leaves as a simile for the fall of bodies. Even after the loss of his sight, Milton’s world, like that of his predecessors, was one full of such images. It was a natural world alive with intimations of the transcendent that could be evoked, personified and filtered through one’s subjective experience.
But modern life, disenchanted by science and mediated by technology, has made that kind of relationship with the natural world impossible, even if we are keen botanists or hikers. Absent the ability to see nature this way — as the dwelling place of unseen forces, teeming with images to be summoned and transformed, as opposed to an undifferentiated mass of resources to be either exploited or preserved — it is unlikely that we will look for those images in the work of Homer or Virgil, and even less likely that we will create those images ourselves.
But surely, you object, we can write poems about things other than flowers and bees and wild goats’ milk, poems that depart not only from the established idioms of the Greek and Latin classics but also from the basic imagistic procedures common to all poetry written before the last century. We can write verse, if not about the perceived transcendent order in the universe, then about the feelings of unease within ourselves; we can even draw our images from the detritus of consumer civilization — an empty plastic bottle, an iPhone with a cracked screen.
Of course we have been doing this, for more than a century now, thanks in large part to Eliot. His poetic revolution began in 1915 with the well-known opening of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
To an Eliot detractor like C.S. Lewis, this grotesque simile — comparing the evening sky to an anesthetized human body — was a moment of rupture, a discarding of the entire established tradition of poetic diction and imagery, and the implicit reverence that undergirded both.
But that, of course, was the point. In breaking with his predecessors (notice how the nine-syllable lines with which “The Waste Land”opens hint at iambic pentameter, teasingly reminding the reader of the vanished inheritance that the author is mourning) and then submitting the entire corpus of European — and not only European — literature to a kind of mash-up remix, Eliot was conveying the fragmentation of human experience, an experience that contemporaries such as Lewis lamented without ever being able to capture.
With his almost cinematic montages, Eliot created a body of work that is unique in English poetry for its simultaneous ability to lay bare both the personal anxieties of its author and the sense of mechanized horror that had overtaken an entire civilization. In juxtaposing automobiles, typewriters, gramophones, popular lyrics and modern slang with allusions to Jacobean dramatists and half-parodic forays into more recognizably “poetic” language, Eliot created an idiom that captured the disappearance of the pre-modern worldview.
Eliot was successful — so successful that he remade all of English poetry, or what has passed for it since, in his image. The clipped syntax, jagged lines, the fixation on ordinary, even banal objects and actions, the wry, world-weary narratorial voice: This is the default register of most poetry written in the past half century, including that written by poets who may not have read a single line of Eliot.
The problem is not that Eliot put poetry on the wrong track. It’s that he went as far down that track as anyone could, exhausting its possibilities and leaving little or no work for those who came after him. It is precisely this mystique of belatedness that is the source of Eliot’s considerable power. What he seems to be suggesting is that he is the final poet, the last in a long unbroken line of seers to whom the very last visions are being bequeathed, and that he has come to share them with his dying breaths.
I’m convinced. Eliot finished poetry off.
Can it be revived? The philosopher Slavoj Zizek has said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism. For my part, I have an easier time conceiving of a world socialist utopia than I do a revival of poetry in English. For poetry to reappear, the muses would have to return from wherever they fled after we banished them. Among the conditions for their return would be, I suspect, the end of the internet and many other things that most of us value far more than we do poetry.
This leaves us in the somber position of Eliot’s speaker in “Ash-Wednesday,” whose “lost heart stiffens and rejoices/In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices,” mourning the absence of something he cannot name.
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