T. S. Eliot

Harold Bloom first wrote about his now famous theory of the anxiety of influence in the early 1970’s while I was in college. Bloom focused on poetry and traced the complex challenge facing a poet in search of his or her own unique voice while being inspired—and intimidated—by a powerful precursor.

The concept of “anxiety of influence” quickly moved from poetry to every creative endeavor. It opened up all sorts of possibilities, like viewing the history of art through a Bloomian lens where every major breakthrough represents a step away from a powerful precursor’s domain. It also helped me see how certain eras speak to one generation and not to others.

A good example is the recent film by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. Light and entertaining, it embodied a fantasy that speaks directly to those of us who grew up in awe of a very particular era of time and its larger-than-life cast of characters—Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Luis Buñuel, et al. But for my daughter, 30 years my junior, the movie was a dud. It made no connection, offered no fantasy fulfillment. Unlike Woody Allen and me, she was not raised on the magic of Paris in the 20’s.

Another giant presence from my coming of age years was T. S. Eliot. (Where he sits in the consciousness of a younger generation isn’t clear to me. Please feel free to share your thoughts on that in the comments section below.) But discovering his poems, particularly The Waste Land, was a watershed during my teenage years. William Logan‘s review of a newly released volume of Eliot’s letters, T. S. Eliot’s Rattle of Miseries, brought back that feeling of awe and fascination. It was also a sharp reminder of the tragic circumstances of the poet’s life. Of course when delivered up by Logan, gifted and insightful and also a poet, the telling is its own pleasure.

Here are a few passages for those of you who are also (and still) Eliotians:

Eliot’s criticism is now undervalued, dismissed by critics without half his sensibility or intelligence. The poems have so long been the foundation of modern anthologies that their reputation has almost as long worked against them (the one indispensable poem of the 20th century is still “The Waste Land”). Eliot’s best poems have almost disappeared beneath dust heaps of commentary, and the dust heaps that lie on those dust heaps. Much of his early work — “Prufrock,” the “Sweeney” poems, “Gerontion,” even “The Waste Land” — could be called urban eclogues, part of the turn in English poetry from the country to the city. It may take a long time to appreciate those poems afresh, after the poets who struggled against Eliot, whether as allies or enemies, are long dead; by that time his world will seem as out of date as Pope’s.

It’s possible to read “The Waste Land” not as a po-faced rattle of miseries by a man who has suffered a nervous breakdown but as a collection of mocking growls, often at his own expense — “rhythmical grumbling,” he later called it. The poem’s pitch-black despairs are leavened by the knockabout portrait of a workingman’s pub (reading the scene aloud, Eliot was mordantly hilarious), the cynical rendering of the typist’s sleazy liaison with the house-agent’s clerk, and the mortal comeuppances dealt to Phlebas and others. Emotionally, it is a shockingly cold poem. The famous notes, scribbled out to pad the American edition, are more like Pope’s cod learning in the “Dunciad” than the scholar’s self-justification for which they are sometimes mistaken (Eliot called himself ill-read). Eliot’s poems, especially the pre-Christian poems, have been so weighed down by the concrete overcoat of reputation, their terrifying humor has sometimes been forgotten or misread. With Swift, Byron and Carroll, Eliot was one of the great comic poets in English.

Knowing a man by the week-by-week crawl through his life is a bit like understanding a locust by examining the dried casing. Still, these letters do reveal the anxieties boiled down into “The Waste Land”…Together these volumes are like a long Russian novel that ends in midcareer, terrifying, humiliating and finally ­exhausting.