January 31, 2015

On the joys of the writerly memoir

"Reality, as Nabokov never got tired of reminding us, is the one word that is meaningless without quotation marks."

Was Pippa Middleton the beginning of the end?


Penguin would have thought it a sure-fire win. An in-law of the royals (and not just any in-law, but the one the press nicknamed "Her Hotness" when she burst onto the scene at her sister's wedding to the second in line) imparts the secret of -- not curing the King's Evil, no, something much more 'of our time': brilliant parties year round.

They handed Pippa a £400,000 advance, and she handed them Celebrate: a year of British festivities for family and friends. And it flopped! Only 2000 copies sold in its first week. In a nation of 65 million people! Plus the Commonwealth!

It wasn't the first celebrity title to flop -- earlier, a book by Alec Baldwin on fatherhood failed even more spectacularly, not surprisingly, I think you'll agree -- but maybe because of the personality in question, it was the first time I noticed the word "bubble" being used. When was the bubble going to burst on celebrity titles (most often memoirs, naturally, followed by -- you guessed it -- cookbooks)?

Well, it looks as if the answer may be 'Now'. With the 2014 sales figures totted up, and various biggies in the book industry weighing in, including the editor of The Bookseller, whose impeccable adjective they used in their headline, The Guardian reported ‘Exhausted’ readers shun celebrity memoirs as autobiography sales fall. 

I, for one, am not disturbed at the idea that the self-indulgent celebrity memoir (which I once saw described as being either the ghostwritten account of 'How I got to be what I am', or ghostwritten advice on 'How you can get to be what I am') may be going into a tailspin.

The great memoir, on the other hand, is my working week and Sunday rest in this moment of my life. What makes a great memoir? I like what the American writer and memoirist Ta-Nehisi Coates said: "Great memoir requires great courage and an appetite for sincere self-skepticism. To do this, you cannot fucking lie."

My appetite for memoir has become such that I'm even reading a book about the appetite for memoir, David Shields's Reality Hunger. Shields maintains that we are living in the Age of Memoir. "Urgency attaches itself now more to the tale taken directly from life than one fashioned by the imagination out of life", says Shields. "Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia." I am not sure it is The age of the memoir - but it surely is My age of the memoir. In the sense of, my age. This was the theory also of Geoff Dyer, who was the first writer who drew my attention to this phenomenon -- he called it "Reader's block", though I learned in this book that he didn't invent the term, David Markson did -- of realising, after many years of gorging on them, that you're having a hard time getting excited any more over invented plots and invented characters.

Never say never (and I'm always still up for classics, maybe because characters like Becky Sharp -- Vanity Fair being the next I plan to read -- have by now become real, with quotation marks, pace Nabokov, and I'll be forever grateful to David Shields for his paraphrase quoted above) but right now, I'll take a good memoir over any other book.

And if you are looking for a good memoir, you can't do better than a writerly memoir. Writers do it better! They know how to write, above all. But also, I am a big fan of how often they write a whole book on an aspect of their lives, rather than attempt to set down the whole shebang.

Here are the writerly memoirs I've got on my table right now:

Original, dreamlike, feminist: Things I don't want to know : a response to George Orwell's 1946 essay 'Why I write'  by Deborah Levy, which ends

I rearranged the chair and sat at the desk. And then I looked at the walls to check out the power points so I could plug in my laptop. The hole in the wall nearest to the desk was placed above the basin, a precarious socket for a gentleman's electric razor. That spring in Majorca, when life was very hard and I simply could not see where there was to get to, it occurred to me that where I had to get to was that socket. Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa. 






Odd, intimate, witty: Revertigo : an off-kilter memoir by Floyd Skloot

I'm actually not sure if the whole book is odd, intimate and witty, as I haven't read it yet, but the last part, which I have read, is. Also touching and heart-breaking. It's about mothers, and about memory, intense and intertwining subjects for anyone over a certain age. A family friend, leafing through an old "East End Temple Young Family Set" recipe book from the 1950s discovers that Skloot's mother, who had never cooked a day in her life, had contributed a recipe for Veal Italienne "Sklootini" to it.

From the moment I saw the recipe, I felt I had to cook it. As avid about cooking as my mother was about not cooking, I saw this as a chance to complete something for her. It would be a tribute to her intention, as I understood it, in submitting the recipe, in presenting herself as the kind of person who cooked such a dish. 


Hypnotic, disquieting, hard-boiled: My dark places: an LA crime memoir by James Ellroy, in which "America's greatest crime writer investigates his mother's murder" -- and his obsession with it.

My father put me in a cab at the El Monte depot. He paid the driver and told him to drop me at Bryant and Maple. I didn't want to go back. I didn't want to leave my father. I wanted to blow off El Monte forever. It was hot--maybe ten degrees more than L.A. The driver took Tyler north to Bryant and cut east. He turned on Maple and stopped the cab. I saw police cars and official-type sedans parked at the curb. I saw uniformed men and men in suits standing in my front yard. I knew she was dead. This is not a revised memory or a retrospective hunch. I knew it in the moment--at age ten--on Sunday, June 22nd, 1958. I walked into the yard. Somebody said, "There's the boy." I saw Mr. and Mrs. Krycki standing by their back door. A man took me aside and kneeled down to my level. He said, "Son, your mother's been killed." I knew he meant "murdered."





Fierce, hilarious, astute: The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle

A whole 300+ pages of "autobiographical writings" which I'm reading for the second time, there's so much to enjoy: the hilarious "Desperately seeking Susan" recollection of Susan Sontag, "Travels with my mother" about taking her mother (who takes mournful pleasure in noting that Castle is beginning to resemble David Hockney) to see a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition, and "My heroin Christmas", about a holiday spent under the spell of Art Pepper's Straight Life, a book whose Reality Hunger credentials I vouched for in a "What I'm Reading" from 2010. 


Warm, frank, virtuosic: Inside a pearl by Edmund White 

If you read lots of Edmund White, you may think you've already read this -- a book on Paris, love, sex, and, in general, being "the kind of guy who always wants to be elsewhere". I did. But no, it's new, and he's still in form, as in:

When I broke up with him (I found the rancid smell of menthol cigarettes daunting), all he did was warn me that I was getting old and should settle down before it was too late. "Tu viellies, Edmond," he hissed. If only he'd known how many more decades of gallantry lay before me. Which didn't stop a reporter from the London Times from calling me and asking me politely, with a nice Oxford stutter, what I thought of "intergenerational sex". I answered him sincerely and described my relationship with Michael, who's twenty-five years younger than me. A few days later, as we were about to board a plane to London, Michael opened a newspaper and found an article about ourselves headlined "The Frisky Old Goat Is Still At It". 




Obsessive, personal, loving: Famous builder by Paul Lisicky

I've just noticed the first quote on the back is from none other than the Frisky Old Goat. "This book shows all the vital signs of genius. In Famous builder Paul Lisicky asks the tragic American question: who are you if you've recreated yourself? And he answers it: you are alone, vulnerable and fully loaded."

"Lisicky." What? I try to project my name toward the ridged roof of my mouth. I try to keep my jaw loose, my eyes animated, secure. I think: Smith, Stevens, Bishop. "Li-sick-y," I say again. "Paul Lisicky." How do you spell that? I note the hushed quality of the bank teller's voice, the tender, quizzical lift of her penciled-in brow. She leans in closer to me, palms flattened against the counter as if I've just told her my condition is terminal.


And for those of you who like the classics:


Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning. 

THE END



--Karen

January 16, 2015

Fetish-vessels of cash: the world's most expensive books

You may have noticed that I am not a fan of "Best books of the year" lists. Not because I don't enjoy recommending books; it's that "best" that gets me, because "And how should I presume?", to borrow Prufrock's refrain.

syndetics-lcHow should anyone presume to identify the best? Best for whom? One of my most pleasurable book memories is of chuckling my way through The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker's paean to procrastination, but a non-procrastinator would undoubtedly find the book a waste of time (worst possible insult). Or, best for which station on our route? If your parents are still alive and on top of things, Roz Chast's memoir Can't we talk about something more pleasant? may seem a grim read, whereas for me it brimmed with poignancy.  "Best" is so subjective!

Did you know that AbeBooks -- the online marketplace of new and used books whose claims of offering "the greatest selection of books found anywhere" I firmly believe (it's actually a network of bookshop websites) -- produces every year an intriguing booklist based on a totally objective formula? Not "best" but "most", and specifically, most money. Which books did avid collectors spend the most for on AbeBooks?

An example of a Les MaÎtres de L'Affiche poster
(AbeBooks)
For 2014, the list was headed by a five-volume collection of a monthly illustrated French publication Les Maîtres de L'Affiche, or "Masters of the Poster", published between 1895 and 1900, which fetched US$ 43,350. Half the top ten were in fact collections of journals, treatises, or encyclopedias.

The other half, well, who would have thought that Das Kapital itself would one day become some rich capitalist's fine fetish-vessel of cash? An 1867 edition sold for US$ 40,000. The others were a first edition of Call for the dead, John le Carré's first novel and debut of the spy George Smiley (US$ 22,500); a 1969 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, illustrated by Salvador Dali who had also signed it (US$ 20,000); a first-edition A Farewell to Arms inscribed by Ernest Hemingway (US$ 18,000); and a collection of Salman Rushdie first editions (US$ 16,162).

You can see all top 50 titles on the AbeBooks website.

And what is the most expensive book ever sold on AbeBooks? A first edition of ... The Hobbit, which went for US$ 65,000.


Pre-movie dust jacket. (Abebooks)

But of course the really huge sales, the million dollar and more ones, aren't made online. The author of the aforementioned Das Kapital affirmed that private property makes people stupid? Well, not that stupid! When you're spending that kind of money, you want to see what you're getting.

Here's a list of the ten most expensive books ever purchased -- usually at auction, where I expect serious bidders (up to your imagination how the Auction House would determine this) would have been able, duly supervised, to hold the book, as long as they had white gloves on, of course. You might want to imagine you are wearing a pair as you peruse it.

List of the ten most expensive book purchases in the world


1. The Codex Leicester, Leonardo da Vinci - US$ 30.8 million

Bill Gates bought this 72 page notebook filled with Leonardo da Vinci's handwritten scientific musings at an auction in 1994. It seems incredible to me that something like this could be in private hands at all, even though the do-gooding Mr Gates did scan it and turn it into a screensaver anyone could enjoy, as long as they were users of Microsoft windows.





2. St Cuthbert Gospel - US$ 14.3 million
 
Lots of superlatives here. Described by the British Library as "one of the world's most significant books", the St Cuthbert Gospel could actually be considered the world's most expensive book, as the Codex Leicester is technically a paper document.  This 7th-century pocket gospel book is the earliest known Western bookbinding to survive, and, with a page size of only 138 by 92 mm, one of the smallest surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. From 1979 it was on long-term loan from the British province of the Jesuit order to the British Library, which in July 2011 launched a fundraising campaign to buy the book for £9 million. Less than a year later, in April 2012, it was announced that the purchase had been completed and the book was now British Library. Restores your faith in the world.


3. The Bay Psalm book - US$ 14.2 million

This psalter, or book of psalms, is one of just 11 surviving copies of 1,700 which were printed in 1640 -- the first book printing in what became the United States. It belonged to the Old South Church in Boston and was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $14.2 million in November 2013. It was purchased by financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein who plans to loan it to various libraries across the United States. Well done, David!







4. The Rothschild Prayerbook - US$ 13.4 million 

A 16th century Flemish illuminated manuscript book of hours which was "confiscated" from the Rothschild family immediately after the German annexation of Austria in 1938. The Austrian government finally returned the book to the Rothschilds in 1999, and it was sold by Christie's that same year for £8,580,000 (then US$ 13,400,000), still the world record auction price for an illuminated manuscript. The prayerbook was offered for sale again at Christie's in 2014 and purchased for £8,195,783. The anonymous bidder was eventually revealed as Australian businessman Kerry Stokes, but the Prayerbook remains unrevealed, part of Stokes's private collection in Perth.


5. The Gospels of Henry the Lion, Order of Saint Benedict — US$ 11.7 million

A masterpiece of the 12th century Romanesque illuminated manuscript which the German government purchased from Sotheby’s in 1983.



cover of Birds of America via Wikimedia Commons
6. Birds of America, James Audubon — US$ 11.5 million

One of America's favourite books, and how could it not be, many Birds of America appear on lists of expensive books. This complete first edition sold at Sotheby's in 2010. Many also are the ingenious ways libraries holding copies share them with the public, eg the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has a daily "page turning" event at 3:15 p.m. in the Academy's Ewell Sale Stewart Library. 


7. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer — US$ 7.5 million

Of the dozen known copies of the 1477 first edition, this copy, sold by Christie's in 1998, was the last to be held privately. It was originally purchased for £6 by Earl Fitzwilliam at the sale of the library of John Ratcliffe, a chandler, in 1776. 

cover of First Folio, via Wikimedia commons

8. First Folio, William Shakespeare — US$ 6.1 million

The First Folio’s original price was a single pound (one or two more for a leather-bound copy). Now, only 228 (out of the original 750) survive, and it's one of the most highly prized finds among book collectors. This sale was in 2001, to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Auckland Libraries has the only First Folio in New Zealand (in fact, it has all four folios). Sir George Grey bought it for the library for £85 (after turning down one in perfect condition priced at £255) in 1894. 


9. The Gutenberg Bible — US$ 4.9 million

A then-record price from 1987. Only 48 Gutenberg Bibles — the first books to be printed with movable type — exist in the world.


cover of Traite des arbres fruitiers from Wikimedia commons10. Traité des arbres fruitiers, [Treatise on Fruit Trees] by Henri Louis Duhamel du Monceau, illustrated by Pierre Antoine Poiteau and Pierre Jean François Turpin — US$ 4 million

There had to be a treatise. This one, dated 1768, is on fruit trees, 16 different varieties.  Only 16? The sale was made in 2006.




The important thing to remember, of course, is that these are not values, but prices. Putting a value on a book... ah, there we are again, back in the subjective! What is your most valuable book? Would it be the one which would fetch the highest price at an auction?

January 07, 2015

"Do I dare to eat a peach?" T.S. Eliot lives!

Photo of TS Eliot
The classic TS Eliot
Starting the new year with a bang and not a whimper, here's to T.S. Eliot! This week marks the 50th anniversary of Eliot's death in 1965; he lived to see the Beatles' first LP, but not a man on the moon. He also lived to see himself an esteemed figure, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he accepted, he said in his speech, "not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry". Of course, that "for a time" was excessively modest, as is demonstrated by the flurry of activity the anniversary is engendering: readings, productions, broadcasts, a Mass or two, a social media shout-out with his own hashtag of #TSEliot, and more.

In a prime example, actor Stephen Dillane, who is described by the event organisers -- and here's where we see what 50 years mean -- with pride rather than offhandedness as "well known for his roles in Game of Thrones and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", will read Four Quartets in Bloomsbury, "just metres from the site of the original Faber & Faber offices" where Eliot worked for four decades and where, noted his colleague Frank Morley at Eliot's 60th birthday symposium, he drew attention above all for his talent at writing blurbs. Other tidbits which have come to light include the fact that Eliot turned down Animal Farm because he thought that, well, actually the pigs were the most qualified to run the farm, they just needed to have more public spirit (you can read the rejection letter on the Open Culture website).

Too, the prize money for the T.S. Eliot Prize for poetry was increased this year in honour of the anniversary, from £15000 to £20000; the yearly stipend the Bloomsbury group had wanted to put together so that Eliot could quit his earlier job at Lloyd's Bank was £500. Virginia Woolf and Co. were among the first to recognise Eliot's genius, though they also mocked his primness, with Clive Bell recalling, in his essay "How pleasant to know Mr Eliot", an invitation he received from Virginia which read, "Come to lunch on Sunday. Tom is coming and what is more, is coming with a four-piece suit." Eliot turned down the stipend, if not the lunch.

Lacked flamboyance

"Lacked flamboyance" was one of the subheadings in Eliot's obituary in the New York Times, where he is described as a "clerkish type", famed for his bowler and "tightly rolled-up umbrella". A clerkish colossus whose "The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" ushered in the modern movement in poetry. In an Eliot 2-for-1, "Prufrock" also has an anniversary this year: its centenary. Its first appearance, in Harriet Monroe's Poetry magazine, was in 1915 -- the same year that Albert Einstein completed his General Theory of Relativity, ushering the concept of black holes, modernity in another form, into physics.

photo of TS Eliot from http://www.phillwebb.net/
Rarer Prufrock-era image
It's hard to realise now, the extent to which people were put off by "Prufrock" a century ago. I remember reading the story (I think in someone's memoirs -- I've been trying to recall exactly where, to no avail; if anyone knows, I'd love to hear from you) of how a cultured society hostess invited Eliot to read it aloud at a luncheon she was giving, and how after the first lines the guests began dropping to their knees and crawling away, so that their impolite departures would be hidden by the tablecloths.

What was so shocking about "Prufrock"?

Let's hear it from someone who lived through those times. Desmond Hawkins, a disciple and a contributor to Eliot's review "The Criterion", decried in an essay for the 60th birthday symposium the "chumminess" and "sloppier sort of Romanticism" of the then-reigning Georgian poetry. But that was a minority view. By all accounts 1915 was Rupert Brooke's year. His poems were quoted in the TLS, read from pulpits, collected, and published to great acclaim, in coincidence with his death on a hospital ship in the Aegean Sea on his way to Gallipoli, just a month before "Prufrock" was published in Poetry magazine.

Here's a verse from Brooke's collection:

Now that we’ve done our best and worst, and parted,
I would fill my mind with thoughts that will not rend.
(O heart, I do not dare go empty-hearted)
I’ll think of Love in books, Love without end...


And here's what another beloved poet of the period, Walter de la Mare, was writing:

Some one came knocking
At my wee, small door
Some one came knocking
I'm sure, sure, sure...

Here's a taste of John Masefield's famous "Dauber", which came out in 1915 as well:

Then came the cry of “Call all hands on deck!”
The Dauber knew its meaning; it was come:
Cape Horn, that tramples beauty into wreck,
And crumples steel and smites the strong man dumb...


and of Alfred Noyes's "The Lord of Misrule", another 1915 publishing date:

Your God still walks in Eden, between the ancient trees,
Where Youth and Love go wading through pools of primroses


 And then, suddenly, there was this:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table...

the story of an everyday hell, made up of failures, doubts and disappointments, with an epitaph from Dante's Inferno in which Guido da Montefeltro swears to Dante that he will speak the truth, as there is no point in fabricating, given that none of them will make it out of hell alive.

Here is a great recitation of "Prufrock" by Anthony Hopkins, which I highly recommend. I've always found it difficult, as a mere mortal, to be convincing on some of those inflections, even in my head -- "Do I dare to eat a peach?" must be one of the most difficult lines to read aloud in the history of poetry -- so it's nice to have someone take command. He does it at a very fast tempo, which I wasn't sure about then and there, but which turned out to be a masterful intuition (more pain, less pomposity). See if you agree. Text follows so you can read along.






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.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? ...

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep ... tired ... or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.


Yep, I'm with Desmond Hawkins who, looking back in 1948, summed it up like this: "Eliot restored the position of poetry as high art and not merely a capricious effusion".

The writer Robert Sward told the story ("All at Sea with T.S.E") of how, around the same time, a US Navy officer expressed what I think is more or less the same concept, though he used slightly different terms:

In 1952, sailing to Korea, a U.S. Navy librarian for Landing Ship Tank 914, I read T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Ill-educated, a product of Chicago's public school system, I was nineteen years old and, awakened by Whitman, Eliot and Williams, had just begun writing poetry. I was also reading all the books I could get my hands on. Eliot had won the Nobel Prize in 1948 and, curious, I was trying to make sense of poems like Prufrock and The Waste Land.

"What do you know about T.S. Eliot?" I asked a young officer who'd been to college and studied English Literature. I knew from earlier conversations that we shared an interest in what he called "modern poetry." A Yeoman Third Class, two weeks at sea and bored, I longed for someone to talk to. "T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but he lives now in England and is studying to become an Englishman," the officer said, tapping tobacco into his pipe. "The 'T.S.' stands for 'tough shit.' You read Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, what one English Prof. called 'the first poem of the modern movement,' and if you don't understand it, 'tough shit.' All I can say is that's some love song."

The officer talks him through the poem and then he says:

"At some level in our hearts, we are all J. Alfred Prufrock, every one of us, and we are all sailing into a war zone from which, as the last line of the poem implies, we will never return."



 
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