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Remembering T.S. Eliot on his 130th anniversary this month

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On T.S. Eliot’s 130th anniversary this month, we are still asking the overwhelming questions about art, life and society that he had posed for the first time

By: Vaishna Roy

It was five years ago that I stumbled upon Julian Peters’ online comic book version of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. It felt as if the iconic poem, which has probably made a bumbling poet of every undergrad ever, had come mysteriously alive, enticing us into the ‘streets of insidious intent’ on its black-and-white panels.

Making a comic book of a poem? But of course. One saw how the intense impressionism of Eliot’s poetry, filled with what Ezra Pound called “luminous details,” offered itself infinitely to image-making. Eliot was masterful at it, a “magic lantern” who “threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.”

Word as image

On his 130th anniversary (he was born on September 26, 1888), it seems particularly relevant to remember him in this, our age of ceaseless image-making, when life is lived with the lens always switched on, with selves shrunk to selfies and all experience annulled unless incarcerated in pixels.

As human communication has morphed from speech to text to images, it seems almost ironic to remember today a man whose words were images. “You tossed a blanket from the bed,/ You lay upon your back, and waited;/ You dozed, and watched the night revealing/ The thousand sordid images…”

For students in the early 80s, still being thrust insensately into an ever-alien, ever-Wordsworthian England, it was Eliot’s  wordscape and the cityscape it evoked that was the first dunk into the cold water of life. You trembled with recognition. Suddenly, dead words and dead images were replaced by “an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass./ Old stone to new building…”

From unfamiliar brooks and birds and pediments you were catapulted into the arms of the present, with all its hopelessness and weary cynicism. Here was a poet who made music from the here and now — the gusty shower, the grimy scraps, the yellow fog, the faint stale smells of beer.

“A poet,” Eliot said, “must take as his material his own language as it is actually spoken around him.” And Eliot used this to fashion poetry from life as it was actually lived around him.

Even then, when the tumult of the millennium was still far away and lives were lived in a quietude innocent of mobile phones and the Internet and the noise of image-making, even then Eliot broke the repose, forced one to ask if the ‘wisdom’ we were force-fed was “only the knowledge of dead secrets”; the serenity “only a deliberate hebetude.” Today, his poetry reads like rap: immediate, energetic, quick, visual. See this passage from ‘Four Quartets’:

‘I said to my soul, be still, and

wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the

wrong thing; wait without love,

For love would be love of the

wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and

the hope are all in the waiting.’

This is music, raw and young and bleeding. As the critic A.R. Scott-James said, Eliot excelled “by introducing us to our own generation.” In this he did to poetry what Salinger did to the novel, breaking it down and recasting it in a tortured forge of his own, creating something that was simultaneously lucid and obscure but always singingly alive.

City streets

With Eliot, one could confidently say that one had gone “at dusk through narrow streets/ And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes/ Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves” and own the words and the lived moment intimately, with the familiarity of an old photograph, the ease of a memory.

He was, as it were, introducing us to the back roads of our cities, and it was an important reason why he became so much an embodiment of the modern. The city for Eliot was a “monument to humanity,” its “half-deserted streets” always a metaphor for modern life, tentative, seeking, empty, too afraid to ask because too afraid to believe, and so forever leading up to but never asking the “overwhelming question”.

The bioscope-wala

Leonard Unger compared ‘Prufrock’ to a series of slides, each “an isolated, fragmentary image” but producing together the suggestion of a larger story. Reading Eliot is indeed like entering the photo gallery on your smartphone: images stream by, father reading newspaper, cat on window, rain on trees, streets, sunsets, flowers, your own face mirrored back again and again, wearing all the faces you wear “to meet the faces that you meet.” Eliot spun these images around and around, like those old bioscope-walas, and you peered inside spellbound by the glimpses of a world on the edges of your own.

There’s another reason his poetry rings with particular resonance in these times. He was speaking to a generation desperately disillusioned by one world war but watching the rise of a new monster in Europe. His poetic landscape of spiritual aridity, of sterile passions that birth nothing spoke as powerfully then as they do today. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Writing about Eliot feels a lot like the act of writing itself, and one can do worse than admit this in his own words:

‘And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on

the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always

deteriorating

In the general mess of

imprecision of feeling...’

Courtesy The Hindu

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