Secret Bullies

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Valerie Eliot died over the weekend. Eliot, second wife of the great St. Louis poet, T.S. Eliot, served as the executor of his estate and, notably, refused to cooperate with biographers. She worked throughout her life editing Eliot’s letters and, generally, protecting the Eliot estate.

Most of the major news outlets have, at least, a small blurb about her life, and this coverage, scant though it may be, reminds us that there was a time when poets mattered in world culture. This is always one of those things my students find stunning (right after they find out literature in the past is filled with sex, drugs, and violence). Back in the day, I tell them, poets were often the first people jailed during a revolution. Poets were the idea-makers, the artificers who could shape public perception. They were devious, aggressively disruptive, and, notably, part of the public conversation.

We read Pablo Neruda and I recommend they watch Il Postino (with the great Massimo Troisi) just to get a sense of poets within the public sphere. We read other great poets but that reading list might change year to year. But, we always read Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The poet’s voice, I tell my students, offers us refuge not simply with the well-constructed phrase or the artistic articulation of an idea. The poet manipulates language and form and, in doing so, strives to control the reader. Joan Didion, author of the brilliant novel Play It As It Lays (one of the most important novels of the 20th century), once wrote that writing as an imposition, an aggressive act: the act, she says, of a secret bully. Poets surreptitiously slide into our subconscious, our dreams, and give us the opportunity to see the world via a different lens. A word or a phrase has the power to haunt us, to provide for us what Robert Frost calls a “momentary stay against confusion.” Poetry has the power to make us re-vision the world and, in doing so, asks us to re-consider our place in that world. Poetry doesn’t take us on fictional journeys with novelistic stories. We are asked, in the relatively short space of a poem, to find our place in the world around us. Poetry slows the world down. And that’s dangerous.

When we read Eliot in my class, my student’s first response is generally one of dismay. “Is it great art because I can’t understand it?,” they ask? (This is similar to the student

T.S. Eliot and Valerie Eliot

who once noted that all great art involved someone dying.) I spend time letting them blow off steam about the language, the references, the multiple languages, and, generally, engaging in a bit of collective whining. It’s important to let students wallow in their own dismay. And then I try to do my job.

“April is the cruelest month,” I might bellow! And so it begins. Word by word sometimes. Now days, we might pull out our smart phones and look up definitions (What’s a hyacinth?), find locations (Where the heck is the Starnbergersee?), or look up people (Ezra who?), but we always start with April. We dig deep into Eliot’s footnotes and we ask simple questions about April’s symbolic meaning in western culture. The entire poem, we discover, is encapsulated in that one opening word. Despair, hope, death, life, theology, politics, irony, allusion. That’s one hell of a word.

But, they argue back, why did he have to make it so complex and they point to the end notes. See! He knew we wouldn’t get it, they argue. Inevitably, some over eager student will know the story about Eliot lecturing when he claimed embarrassment at being paid to discuss such a simple poem. No Joycean claim that he would confound the critics for 500 years.

We need an encyclopedia (or a hot link to google) to read this poem! Ah, but is it Eliot’s fault you don’t you know the story of the pilgrims? The story of Aeneas and Dido? The Fisher-King?

Invariably, my students will complain that it’s not their fault. No one told them the story of Teresias, or the Phoenicians, or Philomela. How are they supposed to know all these stories?

And here is where Eliot’s poem begins to come together. It’s a grand, fragmented mess of a poem, steeped in allusions, throbbing between readers and intent. We don’t know the stories and for Eliot that’s the problem. What happens, Eliot asks, to a culture without a shared sense of narrative? We become the carbuncular young man and the typist: our vanity requires no response and she makes a welcome of indifference. We end the night groping down the unlit stairs.

Certainly, Eliot is imploring us to find truth in the religious world that surrounds us. The peace which passeth understanding, something we find in the chapel on the hill, gets us outside the prison of our own self-interests, Eliot’s poem argues.

But, Eliot’s poem isn’t great because it calls for a return to judeo-christian, western values that are difficult to understand and, often, difficult to defend in a 21st century global world. Eliot’s poem, though, is a reminder that splintered, fragmented cultures fail. Without shared narratives we enter the waste land of our own individuality and we forget there are things greater than us.

We are a part of those things but we can’t just be passive recipients of those things. Ours is a shared narrative and Eliot reminds us that we can’t shirk that duty. We have to help shore up the ruins by connecting, by giving, by engaging. Only then can we hear the thunder and see the rain. Only then can we move past the nothing and into the something. Passivity, Eliot tells us, equals sterility. We must cast our line into the waters around us and avoid simply being fished. Poets aren’t dangerous because they are political; poets are dangerous because they transcend politics and bully us into being human.

Shantih shantih shantih.





About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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