Monday, June 25, 2007

Name That Poem (Fin)

... T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets. Eliot’s in such bad odor that I thought anything good in the quotation from Helen Gardner below (that's Dame Helen Gardner to you and me), writing about Eliot in 1949’s The Art of T.S. Eliot, would get obscured if the poet’s name were in it.

True, there’s the assumption of a truth apart from the language used to express it, also in bad odor. And we’re right to smell it—Gardner’s a Christian with a capital ‘C’ (the only kind of reader who ever seems to tingle at the Four Quartets) and her take on the poem bleeds quickly into apologetics. (That lapse into “the way and the life” is vintage Gardner.)

But it’s a good quote that fits a range of poetries of the ‘other’ twentieth century. That the problem of truth isn’t so much what it might be, but how we would recognize it as such were it to exist, is neatly expressed here, along with the operating hypothesis that still underwrites our formal experiments: that the process the reader undergoes in deriving a meaning from ‘difficult’ verse—and that the poet undergoes in writing it—mirrors the way we arrive at meaning in “the life in which we find it.”

Time is cruel to literary critics. I.A. Richards peeled the names off poems so his Cambridge undergrads could encounter the actual words. That went all haywire later, and has its obvious limits. But I wonder how much sager criticism would sound if we subtracted the poet under discussion. Just for the sake of experiment.


Nicholas Manning said...

Not sure it's entirely fair to say that only a big C tingles at the Four Qs. Perhaps there's also a case for those who have never been entirely In nor Out. My instance for example is a sort of distant ambivalence mixed with intrigue, which managed to make the Four Qs tingle in places, over and in spite of the ideology.

The famous "I thought it was an awful poem until I found out who wrote it" has its merits, putting the accent on the role and influence of a receptive community. ie. A sentimental line written by O'Hara is different, and better, than the same sentimental line written by Ted Kooser. Everything which surrounds a text, including an authors' prior and post productions, critical writings, aesthetic climate etc, take the text from the status of singularity into that of discourse.

But agreed Rodney that the no-naming may be, especially now, salutary. It's a judgement call.

And that's such a great Eliot photo: he looks like he's working out tactics for next season's NFL, (or rather, Man U vs. Chelsea)

rodney k said...

Hi Nicholas,

O.K., I admit to a flutter or two myself, partly at the spectacle of Prospero ditching his old rod. But I've met with hushed tones over Eliot from people who have no hushes for poetry in general; they like this one because it's been told it's "one of ours."

Your comment makes me wonder what a Kooser poem would look like lineated like O'Hara. Or vice-versa.

Your comment makes me wonder what, if O'Hara had a website, the "About Frank" section would say.

The photo came up on just page 2 or 3 of a Google Image search. Never saw it before--Old Possum as a cross between Niels Bohr & John Madden