IN THE SUNLIGHT

One of the most curious episodes in Letters is T.S. Eliot’s declaration in 1920, in the wake of J.M.Robertson’s similarly-themed book in 1919, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an “artistic failure.”

In that infamous essay, Eliot attacks the Bard’s greatest work as “puzzling and disquieting…” Eliot berates Hamlet chiefly because, according to the young banker, Hamlet’s “madness” and the “delay” in killing the king are dubiously presented, and the fault is that Shakespeare sloppily complicates Thomas Kyd’s straight-forward “revenge” tragedy by relying on “the guilt of a mother” which lacks emotional correlation in Hamlet’s updating of Kyd.

Eliot’s hackneyed notion that Gertrude’s guilt and Hamlet’s torn feelings are not sufficiently developed is ludicrous, but what’s even funnier is the way the author of The Waste Land, makes his point:

“The subject [Hamlet’s delay and Gertrude’s guilt] might conceivably have expanded into a tragedy like these [Othello, Antony, Coriolanus], intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight. Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.”

The sickly hodge-podge of The Waste Land—which saw publication thanks to the efforts of Eliot’s wealthy friend, Scofield ThayerEzra Pound, and the slick, modern-art-collector-and-lawyer, John Quinn—and all the rat’s nest poetry from Pound and Pound’s insane asylum visitors which followed in its wake, are the last things anyone could, or would want to, “drag to light.”

Eliot’s “objective correlative” dagger, used to cut Milton, Pope, the Romantic poets, and whole swathes of literary eras, flashes forth for the first time in this crazed essay’s attempt to assassinate Hamlet.

Is the young employee of Lloyd’s Bank writing of Shakespeare when he cites poetry “full of some stuff the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art?”

Or himself?

8 Comments

  1. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 29, 2009 at 6:54 am

    A fascinating perspective, Tom — on both Eliot and Hamlet/Hamlet — i.e. the play as well as the person.

    The irony is, of course, that an artistic exploration of the disintegration of the personality can still have coherence even when neither the audience nor the individual can come up with a coherent explanation for what is happening. Which is precisely why the artistic treatment is so important, isn’t it, and why none of us ever get bored with Hamlet even when we’re fed up to here with Hamlet? For even an individual blessed with Hamlet’s extraordinary linguistic powers can’t avert the absurd personal tragedy that overwhelms anyone like him, and in the process damages so many others as well –which is the heart of almost every tragedy worth it’s salt, isn’t it? Isn’t that also the fine-line between our own precarious security and Hamlet’s insanity. We’re all almost there, aren’t we?

    So it’s the personality, not the tragedy that’s inartistic, and T.S.Eliot can’t make that distinction, he being such a Hamlet himself! Art heals by reconciling the irreconcilable, and making the totally unacceptable not always explicable but worth examining — which is, needless to say, the mind-boggling effectiveness of perhaps the most inartistic of all our unacceptable images, the Cross. And what great art that one great image has produced too — yet so tasteless for the most part, hideous, kitschy and neurotic!

    Which is almost certainly why Eliot embraced it too. For how many modern critics and readers take seriously Eliot’s Christianity, even when it was the most important commitment he ever made in his life, even more self-defining than becoming English or a banker!

    The essay arises out of Eliot’s own inability to let that secret out, it seems to me, and is far more about himself than it is about Hamlet. As you suggest, “this crazed essay’s attempt to assassinate Hamlet” is just about Eliot’s own inability to drag “some stuff … to light.”

    But I can’t go all the way even with that, Tom.

    Yes, I agree with you that The Waste Land is a “sickly hodge-podge,” but I just don’t see what’s wrong with that — it’s such a gloriously artistic sickly-hodgepodge, after all. I love every word of it, and the mess makes sense of my own sickly hodge-podge too! On the other hand, what does irritate me no end is when facile modern imitators think they’ll do their Golden Bough thing too, wield the knife and cut it up to shreds, or even off. And worst of all, how they fawn upon the completely indigestible remnants, “hiatus” they call the wanton entr’acte, as if it were some sort of Tantric Portal through which the blessed gods of modern art rush in. Give me a break — it’s no more grown-up or deep than Californians talking Bardo!

    Hiatus — the deliberate omission of the links to make a work feel deeper than it is, which Shakespeare never does in Hamlet or anywhere else. Deliberate obfuscation, deliberate dismemberment, deliberate in your face trickery and cheating, and then calling it something “new” and writing a Manifesto to build a whole new school around it!

    The Cult of the Hiatus is at the heart of most of modern poetry too, isn’t it? The gap that has no meaning at all yet pretends to contain all that cannot be expressed in any other way. The shock that doesn’t shock, yet the whole academic Court covers its eyes in sore amazement. The imperial dysfunction of our undeveloped arts and artists!

    What a joke, what an inartistic, babbling con!

    Christopher

  2. thomasbrady said,

    December 29, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Eliot locked his wife away, out of the sunlight, didn’t he?

    Eliot belonged to England, he reveled in his blood and his ancestry.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    December 29, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Anyway, Christopher, I could slam Eliot all day. He’s an easy target.

    You say he was a Hamlet himself? Perhaps. Son of Emerson, anxious to kill the usurping Poe. Both Emerson and Eliot gloried in their English stock, and I don’t mean privately, I mean publically. Sadly, it’s on record.

    But as to the art of ‘The Waste Land,’ I’m not sure Eliot knew what he was doing with it. I saw it recently performed at Harvard as a dramatic reading, and it really didn’t work. It’s neither a poem, nor a drama. It lacks unity.

    Eliot clearly wrote a number of poems, stole a number of lines from other poets, and then, in a melancholy mood, cut and pasted. Here is a method, but I don’t think it is the method which triumphs in “The Waste Land” but rather it is glimpses of lyric poetry fighting to be heard through the cutting and the pasting which is the key to its success; the fragments happen to support a theme of fragmentation, but this can work and work once, only, for there have been no more successful ‘Waste Lands,’ since, fragmentary works which attempt to piggypack on a theme of ‘fragmentation’ cannot help but come across as cynical and insincere. “The Waste Land” escapes the charge because it was the first attempt. As an aesthetic principle it can work but once. All poets who have repeated the attempt, have failed. The influence of “The Waste Land” has been pernicious. Eliot’s lyrical gift has been used to kill.

    Modernism’s great aesthetic legacy was to make art and ordinary life the same. But here’s a virtue that contains risks. Ordinary life is ordinary because it is a “hodge-podge” and once it takes on a unity and a meaning it is no longer ordinary.

    My point is not to find fault with ordinary life, or to find fault with art that reflects, to a certain degree, ordinary life, but to be wary of the view that makes art disappear into it.

    Of course it’s easy to say: come now, we kid ourselves that we, or those we love, or a nation, or a cause, or a people, ever transcends ordinary life, except in a deluded sort of way, and all of it, even great art, is tangled up, finally in ordinary life, and ordinary life is all there is.

    Ordinary life provides infinite interest and art which presents itself as broken off chunks of ordinary life is bound to be admired; ordinary life is sufficient for art, and art appreciation.

    But art which disappears into ordinary life presents the possibility that ordinary life will become even more ordinary, and that if a people do not practice to make an art that rises above the ordinary, there is a very real danger that something important will be lost.

    Thomas

  4. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 30, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    Two loud “hear hears!”

    1.)

    “I don’t think it is the method which triumphs in “The Waste Land,” but rather it is glimpses of lyric poetry fighting to be heard through the cutting and the pasting which is the key to its success; the fragments happen to support a theme of fragmentation, but this can work and work once only, for there have been no more successful ‘Waste Lands,’ since fragmentary works which attempt to piggypack on a theme of ‘fragmentation’ cannot help but come across as cynical and insincere. “The Waste Land” escapes the charge because it was the first attempt. As an aesthetic principle it can work but once. All poets who have repeated the attempt have failed. The influence of “The Waste Land” has been pernicious. Eliot’s lyrical gift has been used to kill.”

    2.)

    “Art which disappears into ordinary life presents the possibility that ordinary life will become even more ordinary, and that if a people do not practice to make an art that rises above the ordinary, there is a very real danger that something important will be lost.”

  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    December 30, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    And a list of four similar seminal disasters that became one-off ‘greats’ for various odd historical, emotional, political and sociological reasons, and which have spawned countless imitations that have limited the development of modern poetry:

    1.) In a Station of the Metro

    2.) The Red Wheelbarrow

    3.) Howl

    4.) ?????

    If you dare to ask yourself why these poems have become so influential instead of just why they are so great, you will have made huge progress in finding your own voice independent of the modern tendency to sanctify the pedestrian and perpetuate our peculiar artistic limitations.

    Because would any of these poems have become so famous and influential without our creative writing programs? Isn’t that what makes our contemporary poetry so uniquely drab and unreadable, and of course reductive?

    Have poets ever before been schooled so badly, and with such unsatisfactory models?

  6. thomasbrady said,

    January 2, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Christopher,

    “Howl” benefitted from the obscenity trial.

    The other two pieces of haiku imagism by Pound and Williams benfitted from unalloyed praise in the influential textbook by Warren and Brooks, “Understanding Poetry,” and these New Critics Warren and Brooks were part of the Modernist group which included Ransom, Eliot, Tate, Pound and Williams. These people were all looking out for each other.

    We don’t realize today that the modernists had no audience until poetry writing was taken up systemically in the academy. It was not until the Workshop era and when textbooks like “Understanding Poetry” were widely read in college, especially during the postwar GI Bill influx, that poets like Wiliams had any audience at all.

    Elizabeth Bishop writes of a reading at the Brooklyn Institute sponsored by Poetry magazine on Dec. 4, 1936 by Marianne Moore and WC Williams:

    “There was a very small audience, mostly in the front rows, and I made my way self-effacingly as I could down the steep red-carpeted steps of the aisle. As I approached the lower rows, she [Moore] spotted me out of the corner of her eye and interrupted herself in the middle of a poem to bow and say, ‘Good Evening!’

    One can see from this scene how inconsequential these ‘stars’ were. It was a tiny cabal of friends. The modernists had no audience until they were taught in college—by themselves, and then, by the first generation of their student creative writers—who became teachers in turn. The same things is happening now; there’s just more numbers and it’s hopelessly diluted; no more ‘stars;’ just MFAs reading MFAs. Back then there were two dozen Alan Tates; today there’s 50,000. But it’s the same process.

    Thomas

  7. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 3, 2010 at 1:23 am

    It’s like the last post by Amber Tamblyn on Harriet, in modern poetry you can’t tell anymore when any tongue’s in any cheek. It’s all got to be self-parody, every bit of it, including the ‘comments’ — in the MFA lecture hall, in the blurb of the latest prize-winning author’s collection, in the broadsheet APR, even in POETRY Magazine! Even Amber Tambyn’s own last comment to her own last post at The Poetry Foundation has got to be tongue in cheek — and if it isn’t, of course, it’s genius.

    But where’s the beef if it isn’t, ever?

    I never said she [Benazir Bhutto] was wearing a bikini. I could only see her face.

    This was all I can remember from a dream I had 2 nights ago. Wanted to share it. I woke up feeling freaked out by it.

    A

    POSTED BY: AMBER TAMBLYN ON DECEMBER 9, 2009 AT 1:27 PM
    Report this comment.

    So on 11/22/09 she writes, “I took an editing break to go see my friend Beau Sia perform at the Bowery Poetry Club,” and almost gets killed. Then on 11/01/2009: “Prior to the cold, I was able to make it to Rachel Mckibbens’ book release party at the Bowery Poetry Club. I had my book release party there as well back in September, and the energy can sometimes be stressful and a little crazy. Rachel was incredible and her book Pink Elephant is filled with the kind of poems some women spend their entire lives trying to write. It was a magical evening.” Then she needs “some Dayquil and a nice Scotch,” she says. (what’s Dayquil, and who are these women who spend their entire lives trying to write this poetry? Do they walk unchaperoned on the Bowery too? Do they let it all blog out between readings like Amber Tamblyn?)

    10/11/09 with her Mom.

    “We left for Los Angeles, bumping Notorious B.I.G. in the car, eating In-N-Out burgers and planning our sets for that evening’s Beyond Baroque show (Oh, youth). I performed with my mom which is always extra sweet because we sing together, judge each other’s scarves, threaten to take each other to Judge Judy then sing again. After the show, my adorably sloshed and most favorite Uncle on my dad’s side approached me. He’s got a weepy eye that cries no matter what’s going on, which usually makes you feel his sincerity even more, but can sometimes be deceiving, depending on what’s about to come out of his mouth. He said, “Did your cousin get to hear you read any of these poems you read tonight when you read in Oakland? Did you read the one about your dad? I wish I could sing the way you do.”

    Well you can if you just follow the instructions, the red-brick road, the dots, Stephen Burt, whatever.

  8. Christopher Woodman said,

    January 3, 2010 at 3:43 am

    But seriously, as I’ve already suggested to Amber Tamblyn herself, poets shouldn’t allow themselves to be used like celebrities who get on party lists because it makes the real guests feel they’ve arrived. This is demeaning, particularly when a poet is just starting out on his or her career.

    We’ve deliberately refrained from talking about another young daughter even better connected than Amber who got a poetry book contract while she was still an undergraduate — and apparently before her book had even been written! We feel that’s not her fault, but the parents’ — not to speak of the publisher’s. So we just wish her well, and hope her career will not be damaged by the careerists who would use her.

    But Amber Tamblyn has of her own freewill allowed herself to be shamelessly used by The Poetry Foundation, and now she’s become a laughing stock — indeed, she’s now more of a butt of jokes than even Gary B. Fitzgerald.

    At least Gary has enough confidence in his poems to post them, and he’s right to do that too, and his poems can take it. Amber just posts her assets.

    ~

    What would T.S.Eliot have said about that, following on from his essay on the inauthenticity of Hamlet? Or is it Hamlet?