Saturday, November 14, 2009

Aimless Reading: The E's, Part 6 (T.S. Eliot)

Eliot, T.S.
The Complete Poems and Plays


Not sure where I bought this. Probably at the Fordham bookstore. I have had it since college, or soon thereafter. They still sell this extremely ugly hardcover . Not that I care, but you'd think they would have sexed up the dust jacket by now. This looks ike it is being marketed to British bankers in 1958.

In college, we studied Eliot the same way we studied Joyce. That is, we assumed that the author was some sort of oracle-genius who had provided us a with a highly complex, highly allusive, perfectly composed code that we as critics needed to crack. It was assumed that every word, every phrase, every detail of every work was not only significant, but also an irreplaceable part of the holy structure of the poem. Our job as students was to track down every single reference and inference and then to reveal how the whole work would collapse if that particular detail were absent or placed in some other part of the work.

Likewise, in the case of Eliot, we could look at his revisions and show why each correction, each revision, was an improvement, and how every detail left out of the poem would have served to undermine its perfection. It was kind of like church. I remember writing a paper about how the first draft of "The Wasteland" was structured like a drama, and how Ezra Pound removed all reference to the drama -- stage directions and so forth, mostly -- in his revisions of the poem, leaving only the five "act" structure in its place. Sigh. Snore.

I think I remember reading that Charles Olson wrote a letter to Eliot about the following poem telling him that one of the birds he mentions is not found on Cape Ann.

Cape Ann

O quick quick quick, quick hear the song-sparrow,
Swamp-sparrow, fox-sparrow, vesper-sparrow
At dawn and dusk. Follow the dance
Of goldfinch at noon. Leave to chance
The Blackburnian warbler, the shy one. Hail
With shrill whistle the note of the quail, the bob-white
Dodging the bay-bush. Follow the feet
Of the walker, the water-thrush. Follow the flight
Of the dancing arrow, the purple martin. Greet
In silence the bullbat. All are delectable. Sweet sweet sweet
But resign this land at the end, resign it
To its true owner, the tough one, the sea gull.
The palaver is finished.

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