30 Day Book Challenge: Day Seven

Book that you can quote/recite: Collected Poems – T.S. Eliot


You can call shenanigans on whether or not this counts, I don’t care. When it comes to quoting or reciting I’m actually not big on novels (with the exception of Lord Of The Rings, but I already did an entry on that) because it’s pretty rare for me to reread one – there’s just so many great books and yet so little time! I’m more into quoting music (especially hip-hop), movies, and poetry, as these mediums are more quickly consumed and actually encourage repeated revisits.

In regards to poetry, aside from Shakespeare, I don’t think there’s anyone as quotable as Eliot (and even then I’d argue Eliot is a better poet than the Bard (the better playwright, or writer in general, however, is obviously not even a question)). Along with Joyce, he’s probably the biggest figure in 20th century literature and innovator of the modernist style. Much like Joyce, his work gives off that vibe of pretentious erudition, but if you just give it a chance its brilliance will soon become evident.

Samuel Beckett said that Joyce’s Finnegans Wake was to be heard and beheld instead of simply read, and I would say that’s essentially true of all great literature. The only true introduction to Eliot’s poetry is to read it aloud. Better yet would be to track down a recording of Eliot himself reading it; he had an incredible voice and ear for performance. The organization of stanzas and lines are also critical for interpreting Eliot’s work. In the case of “The Waste Land,” he actually provides footnotes and endnotes that take you on even wilder hermeneutic paths, like falling done rabbit hole after rabbit hole.

(I love this: a draft of “The Waste Land” mercilessly edited by Ezra Pound)

I think Eliot’s greatest strength was his ability to open a poem. His words cascade upon you like a great musical overture. A few examples:

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

“Four Quartets”

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

It would probably be more appropriate to compare Eliot to Mozart or Stravinsky than any other poet or writer. The affects of his words are like the distant emanations of a piano from an unknown, unlit corner. Phrases are layered upon one another as meaning is found in different pastiches formed freely by the reader.

As I said with Joyce, Eliot respects the reader’s intelligence and is only trying to get you to think differently about art and just about everything else. Eliot changes not just the way you think about poetry, art, and aesthetics, like a great philosopher, he changes the way you think.

I know I stressed how essential it is to listen to Eliot himself, but I couldn’t resist including this reading of “The Hollow Men” by Marlon Brando:




~ by braddunne on June 22, 2011.

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