The original meeting location for the DC Poets Against the War contingentIn the meantime, if you're looking for poetics talk, here's the text of an e-mail I received from a young Israeli poet and student asking about T.S. Eliot, of all things, and what I said in reply:
marching on Saturday will be closed that morning.
So, please join us at our NEW LOCATION (Apologies and please help us get
the word out!):
Saturday, September 24, 11 AM
Sherman Square Park, next to the White House gate on the west side of 15th
Street NW (at Alexander Hamilton Place.)
Closest Metro: McPherson Square (Orange & Blue) or Metro Center (Red,
Orange & Blue)
And don't forget:
Bring your poems of hope and outrage to the:
Open Mic for Peace & Justice
Sunday, September 25, 3-5 PM
Busboys & Poets, 14th & V St., NW, Washington, DC
U Street/Cardozo Green Line Metro
Free and open to the public. A special welcome to those in town for
Saturday's rally and march.
More info: 202-577-6596, email@example.com
Sam Hamill & the PAW Board
Dear Joshua Corey,What a fascinating doorway into the Israeli scene you've opened for meI know alas very little about Israeli poetry, though I have read a few things by Shabtai and Amichai. It doesn't surprise me that Eliot's star is still ascendant there, just as I believe it to be in England and know it to be in Japan (thanks to some contact I've had with Japanese scholars of Anglo-American poetry). I believe this has a lot to do with the radical break Eliot's work represents in European cultures (it may seem odd to say "European" when I've just mentioned Israel and Japan, but of course a great deal of both countries' literary cultures have been imported from Europe) from literary traditions that are hundreds of years oldalso the content of his poetry expresses the agony of modernity that is still very fresh to cultures with a deep sense of history. Whereas in America I think we have both a shorter memory and, paradoxically, a longer reachback to Dickinson and most profoundly, Whitman. America has had what you might call a tradition of the new since its creation, so Eliot's breaking of the pentameter (facilitated by Pound) maybe seems less contemporary to us than Whitman's, especially since Eliot lacks the perennial optimism of Whitman. The other point is that Eliot of course assimilated himself into English literary culture with as much success as anyone has ever enjoyed, and so became a part of an Anglocentric establishment that the New American poets of the postwar period have always regarded with suspicion (and were themselves so regarded, and continue to be to this day). Eliot remains a figurehead for those who would like to confine modernism to a few anthologieswho insist on its residualness, to use Raymond Williams' terminologyand regard emergent modernisms, quite rightly, as a threat to the hegemonic institutional positions they as writers of what we might call modernism-lite currently enjoy (dishing out grants, publications, etc.).
I've been reading your Blog with great pleasure the past few days, and as I very much enjoyed your writing on Modernism, and on the post-avant canon, grew somewhat curious regarding a very peripheral issue: What is your current aesthetic evaluation of Eliot?
I should explicate the motive behind this rather out-the-blue question: In Israel, which is where I live and grew up, Eliot's influence was always an unyielding avant-garde force - his work supplied the major departure point from traditional poetics for the innovative Israeli poetry of the sixties and seventies, along with Russian futurism and a minor Beat influence. The elder-statesman figure was taken as an unfortunate personal attribute, much like his anti-Semitism, and never did much to color the perception of his work. Of course, the early Eliot was much more prized than the later.
Discovering the world of American post-avant, I was repeatedly shocked and dismayed to see Eliot posited in the "them" of the us vs. them equation, his poetry dismissed or ignored, and his earlier works read in light of the later ones, instead of vice-versa as I'm used to (I do know of some efforts to the contrary by Perloff and Bernstein, but these never seemed to have an effect). So I'm always intrigued by anyone from the scene showing any kind of interest in Eliot at all, and in your Blog I've encountered some very interesting, though ambiguous, comments regarding his work.
So that's my sense of the background. As for me personally, Eliot is a crucial figure: when I first read "Prufrock" and "The Waste Land" in the Norton Anthology when I was fifteen years old, I was electrified by his transference of Shakespearean cadences to a twentieth century I could recognize. Probably the Anglophilia of my mother, inherited by me at a young age (hours and hours spent with Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Dickens, etc.), prepared me to be entranced by his mixture of "high" and "low" diction, with a spice of English exoticism (HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME, goonight, etc.). Much later I read Four Quartets and was less impressed; later than that I became wary of Eliot's ideological cramming of his gorgeous, neurasthenic, playful language into the narrow cell of the Church of England. Nowadays I feel his poetry is stronger than that ideology, even in parts of Four Quartets, and I can read him with pleasure, though yet wincing at the anti-Semitism. Except for part of a
paper I wrote on Stein and D.H. Lawrence (a pleasingly unlikely combination), I haven't devoted much scholarly attention to him; instead he's part of my long foreground. Recently my poetry was compared to his in what was intended to be an unflattering light (that's the review of my book Fourier Series at www.constantcritic.com)stained by Eliotan yearnings for hegemony. But he's too far back in the past (my past?) to be an Oedipal father that needs to be overcome, and I suspect many younger poets feel the same way. His critical stock, at an ebb in this country, might be due for a rise sometime soon.
Peli wrote back with the names of some avant-garde Israeli poets I'm glad to know about: David Avidan, who is described as "Mayakovsky meets Pound meets O'hara meets Bernstein," and who apparently once wrote a hundred-page poem in conversation with Eliza; and Hezy Leskly, who can be sampled in (mediocire, Peli says) translation here. Peli compares him to Graham Foust and Jack Spicer: a heady combination! Peli also asks why Pound is still seen as relevant when Eliot is dismisseda fair question I'll have to think on, but I suspect the answer has something to do perhaps paradoxically with the failure of Pound's project versus Eliot's unimpeachable success. And maybe Pound's pact with the sunny Whitman has something to do with it: Peli feels that in America, darkness in poetry became associated with the Confessionals, while in Israel, "If its formally innovative, it damn sure will have a heavy dosage of bitter irony and death-urge in it."
That's history for you, and maybe national temperament: we Americans sure do like to smile. I've always felt my own urges toward darkness as coming from my European side, my Jewish cultural memory. Tragedy vanishes in the blinding American sunshine; only in the South do we feel anything like that mingled legacy of injured pride, humiliation, and blood-guilt. It may seem like a harsh and unnatural presecription but the inculcation of what's too glibly called "the tragic sense of life" in Americans could go a long way toward unblinding us and awakening compassion, though we'd run the risk of intenser ressentiment.
On to the capital.