What Eliot Means to Me

21 thoughts on “What Eliot Means to Me”

  1. With some exceptions, I found myself thinking, “Exactly—me too.” At least for the first half—but the way Eliot has threaded his writing into your maturation has been different from mine—not in an opposite way, just differently. Yet the similarities in the beginnings of our fascination with Eliot, and the fact that I’ve met one or two others of the same loyalty, I found striking—I suppose it represents a ‘type’ of some kind.

    Partly, as you say, he is a gateway for the young and autodidact-tending, ready to plunge into academia—his “Waste Land” is as much reading list and study guide as it is poem. Also, he replaces the lust of Byron, et al, with a more modern, philosophical approach to both sex and emotion. And most importantly, he is never the ‘hero’ in his poems—always the hapless leaf in the winds of modern change. Far easier for teens to relate with, maybe—or certain teens, at least.

    You mentioned you never found Eliot a ‘difficult’ poet—and I agree, but I think he is like Bach in that way—many Bach pieces can be learned as a beginner, yet a lifetime’s practice of them continues to yield new facets and surprises. I find myself quoting Eliot constantly: when in doubt, I say to myself, “Not fare well, but fare forward”; when restless, I mutter, “My nerves are bad tonight, yes bad”; when herding my kids, I used to say, “Hurry up, please. It’s time.”

    But my favorite, when I’m having trouble expressing myself, or I’m trying to convey the inadequacy of speech, I say, “Words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, will not stay still.” (but I usually get lost halfway through).

    Just as Shakespeare coined half the language, I suspect that Eliot coined many modern memes that the less-creative literati of the rest of the 20th century simply re-worked. Considering his friendship with Russell and his study of modern philosophy, one might even credit him with helping our scientists see things in new perspectives, as they struggled to understand a mathematics shorn of divinity and a physics that left the observable macrocosm behind.

    But then, like I said—I too am a big fan.

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  2. The Quartets – the one poem I return to again and again, finding it fresh each time. Each venture a new beginning – just wish I could raid the inarticulate as well as he did!

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  3. I agree that Eliot is “worth the effort” but he’s never been “trouble” for me. I enjoyed your post, and I like the thought of writing more about what we like and what is good in the world than about the negatives that surround us. Yet writing is based in conflict and tension. We can never get away from it. Hopefully our writing is a way by which we can traverse the rough terrain of our lives and come through to a better place.

    Thank you for sharing Eliot with your readers.

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  4. Thank you for this. It’s true that we can’t get away from conflict and tension, and one thing I’m working on now modifies my thought of simply writing about we love, rather than what we dislike. Since most things nowadays, especially the internet, are hyper-critical (whether positive or negative, in both cases we are constantly called on to draw the sharpest distinctions between peoples and groups), our experience of art and culture are more about interpretation and dissection, rather than experience. But the actual experience of art needs eloquent articulators, rather than vitriolic defenders, and I hope this essay on Eliot still succeeds in this way.

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  5. Thank you for this generous comment. I like the comparison to Bach (though Eliot may have pointed to a late Beethoven quartet), the lifelong relationship something supremely well-made and technically simple that nevertheless continues to deepen as life goes on. The experience that prompted this essay four years ago was a trip to London that became a mini Eliot pilgrimage of sorts (check out my first post: https://wordandsilence.com/2012/09/18/silence-in-london-9182012/), and it was only then that I came back to his “Ash Wednesday” and found that I now loved it, after years of only really caring for the Quartets, and a few others. I find myself quoting Eliot too, all the time; he’s in my blood like few other authors.

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  6. I agree about the criticism. I have a policy on my blog only to review books that I’ve enjoyed and have something nice to say about as in the adage that all of our mothers drilled into our heads, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and I sleep better at night for it. I really don’t want to add to an already hypercritical, glass half empty kind of world.

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  7. A line from Prufrock has become a lifeline as I’ve grown older….I am old/I wear my pants legs rolled.
    I may not have it exact, but the line makes me laugh. And whenever I think Eliot, I see fog winding through streets and window sills.
    I once spent a week in a pension in Topolobambo, Mexico next to the sea. The room had a casement window which I opened before dawn each day so I could watch fog roll over the sill and drift down the wall as I sat with pen in hand and wrote.

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  8. I read your essay while listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet. I will return to your thoughts on Eliot again (and again) for inspiration. Thank you. And thank you too for following me: without that prompt, I would never have discovered this delightful essay of yours.

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  9. ‘it’s not the narrative that matters, so much as the flashes, the fragments:’ great line! I am impressed with your writing and insight – it’s a pleasure to follow your blog. Thank you.

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