As Faber&Faber release an app of The Waste Land, poet Lavinia Greenlaw describes her first, determinedly un-digital, encounters with T.S. Eliot.
A couple of years ago, America’s national poetry month was marked by a poster of a fogged window on which someone had written Do I dare disturb the universe? It looked like the work of a teenager on the bus home from school on a rainy day and it is, with its combination of fragility and grandeur, a very teenage question.
It was asked by T.S. Eliot, in one of his most famous poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Eliot was 22 when he began writing it in 1910, a boy from Missouri spending a year in Paris studying at the Sorbonne. He was looking for himself and also for his voice, rejecting the familiar and exploring foreign influences.
By the time I was a teenager, Eliot was the grand old man of poetry. His work was on the curriculum and we studied at it in terms of religion (he famously converted to Catholicism), literary allusion and social comment. Along with W.H. Auden, he was sold to us as ‘modern’. The Sex Pistols were modern, not cab-horses and streetlamps, not the ‘sempiternal’ or the ‘multifoliate rose’. Besides which, teenagers don’t need poetry to be modern for it to appeal to them. They just need to recognise something of themselves. We were shown a photo of a well-padded old buffer in spectacles and a three-piece suit. At home I found a 78 of him reciting his work. His dated accent (no sign of Missouri) and the crackling record made me feel as if I were listening to the distant past. He might as well have been Chaucer.
There was a lot of uncomfortable laughter when we read him aloud in class. He seemed to be either too serious or not serious enough, either making a grand statement or frying a steak. He disappointed me, especially in Prufrock which suffers an immediate loss of dignity:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table.
I hardly thought of myself as conservative but I wanted poetry to at least sound like poetry.
Prufrock troubled me in other ways too. The old men I read about were majestically cantankerous – Lear raging in a storm – or they inhabited an existential no-man’s-land like Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. They didn’t hang around tea tables or make such a fuss: ‘Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?’ Who cared about this old man fretting over his bald spot and skinny legs or being squeamish about the hair on a woman’s arms? We all squirmed the first time we read the lines
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
For one thing the childish rhyme made it sound plain silly. And then we stopped to think about what it meant – you get old and you get smaller, you look childish and silly. Unnerved we pushed the though away: not us, we would never be feeble and shrunken and querulous; we were never going to grow old.
I didn’t want to read about a grown-up suffering from such anxieties and vanities because of course I was having those exact worries myself. I spent hours in front of ‘a wilderness of mirrors’ (Gerontion), and was in a state of perpetual mortification about being clumsy or messy, or saying or doing the wrong thing under the scrutiny of my friends. As I started to understand this, Eliot drew me in.
He knew what it was to feel the need to reconstruct yourself. As I made my pale skin paler, drew thick black lines round my eyes, and pulled my hair into spikes, I could hear him reassuring me that ‘There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.’ He understood the agony over sartorial detail, all those decisions, and the luxury of wallowing in every step of every thought:
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the post-pink years, music took on a new seriousness. It was loaded with irony and allusion, and played with the frissons of atrocity and way. The buzzword was eclectic and we borrowed casually from other eras in what we wore too: Fifties raincoats, ancient flannel trousers, Thirties tea dresses and Forties suits. I might combine a Victorian lace shirt with a dinner jacket and plastic trousers or sport a collision of Chanel tweed, luminous mohair and cricket whites. Mostly I wore black. I smoked French cigarettes, drank Pernod and argued with my boyfriend about Joseph Beuys and Roland Barthes. Soon I was carrying Eliot around in my raincoat pocket.
Poetry is often easier to grasp when you don’t worry about how to set about it. I read The Waste Land as if it were something on the back of an album cover, something eclectic. I didn’t try to put its parts together, to translate the languages or trace the allusions. I just enjoyed its effects. They seemed pretty modern to me. Despite their frequent datedness (taking tea?), his poems turned out to inhabit something of the rock ‘n’ roll underworld I aspired to: half-deserted streets, cheap hotels, sawdust restaurants and oyster shells.
I was a sixteen-year-old who craved seriousness and I found exactly what I was looking in his work. When you are in an agony of intensity, Eliot matches you. I was drawn to his tidal surges of despair, his shrugging bleakness, his way of bandying the big words, ‘memory’, ‘desire’, as if they were simple, understandable things. He sounded so sensitive, so weary.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
(The Waste Land)
England in the 1970s was insular and drab. Perhaps this was why we turned up the volume in every way we could. We wanted the wider world – heightened experience and heightened language with which to describe it. At that time mainland Europe felt very far away and people still referred to ‘the Continent’ with undertones of disapproval. Eliot had headed for it as soon as he could. We craved European glamour and strangeness, colour and complication, his ‘garlic and sapphires in the mud’. He was not embarrassed to revel in Rimbaud and Dante. Like us, he was Serious about Art.
I carried lines from his poems in my head, which I intoned like prayers: ‘Midnight shakes the memory/As a madman shakes a dead geranium’. They sounded just like the lyrics to the songs I was listening to. Nowadays, these lines make me laugh. I suppose I’m embarrassed by their intensity and while I don’t worry too much now about how to part my hair or eat a peach, I am clearly just as easily discomfited as my teenage self. When I interrogate the image, it really stands up. Who doesn’t know the senseless, fruitless horror of late-night thoughts?
Eliot was not an altogether helpful influence, as I discovered when I sent these lines from Gerontion to a boy after a row:
I would meet you upon this honestly.
I that was near your heart was removed therefrom
To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition.
I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it
Since what is kept must be adulterated?
I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch:
How should I use them for your closer contact?
It was as if I had written the letter in Chinese. I don’t think I had a clue what Eliot was going on about either but I responded to the passage’s depth and discomfort.
Looking at it now, I read it as a forensic account of disenchantment. Unlike me, Eliot was in control. He knew that ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality’ which means that the writer has to detach themselves from the poem in order for it to succeed.
Prufrock may speak the agonies of youth but it is very far from the kind of things I was scribbling in my notebooks back then. I aspired to Eliot’s complexity and depth but I was yet to understand how poetry works. Eliot is not being agonised, he’s enacting it for you. His poem is a brilliant construction that activates in us a complicated and powerful response, including embarrassment, mockery and unease. Like all great poets he was unafraid to puncture the elegance of his language in order to get exactly the right image or phrase. He was prepared to set aside decorum in order to convey something exactly. Teenagers, with their dress codes and fear of humiliation, are an oddly decorous lot.
At the same time, he knew that emotional engagement had to be there in the first place as he goes on to say ‘But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things/’ This man who seemed so fussy and afraid of life was reminding me that for poetry to be written, life had to be lived.