To my surprise, I’ve been asked to lead a critical seminar on sound in T. S. Eliot’s poetry at the next meeting of the Eliot Society, this September in St. Louis. Don’t tell, but coincidentally, I just published a poetic response to “The Waste Land” in Fringe Magazine. “Zombie Thanksgiving” brings together modernist poetry, George Romero, and family dysfunction with what I fear might be Frankensteinian hubris, but the union felt not monstrous but natural. Withered Sybil, ghosts flowing over London Bridge, buried life painfully reviving, “bats with baby faces” crawling head-first down the walls of Dracula’s castle (well, maybe)—“The Waste Land” has always been a horror story told by one of those erudite Poe characters as his sanity crumbles, right? Eliot’s allusion-gathering is a sort of grave-robbing in order to build a new creature from mismatched parts, stitches showing. (Does that make Ezra Igor?)
All of which has me wondering: where is Eliot’s influence in contemporary U.S. poetry? Ezra Pound, Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, H.D., Wallace Stevens and others have all had a pretty imposing afterlife haunting the House of Verse. I still hear them cited by young and mid-career writers, read new poems in magazines that echo theirs. He was enormously important to his contemporaries and to twentieth-century-poetry’s middle generation, but after that something knocked him out of the club of Literary Influences Cheerfully Acknowledged by Other Poets. His appalling politics or his expatriatism or his personal creepiness as portrayed by Willem Dafoe, perhaps.
I have the impression Eliot cast a longer shadow in Great Britain than in the U.S. My undergraduates still love/hate his otherworldly powers. I remember liking a poem Kim Addonizio had in Poetry a few years back; I haven’t found it yet but I’m pretty sure she shored some fragments of “The Waste Land” against her ruins. Who else is channeling Eliot, though, among contemporary writers? What proudly Eliotic cohort am I not thinking of?
Are half-rotted Prufrocks shambling through poems beyond my peripheral vision?
So if poems are time-travel devices, they ought to travel sideways and forward as well as backwards. I recently hosted a reading by Natasha Trethewey, who definitely points her universal remote towards the past in Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, and Beyond Katrina. I’m teaching the latter two books in various courses and our conversations focus on memory and monuments. Her poems about Louisiana’s Native Guard, Gulfport, and her mother offer various ways of honoring history. Sometimes she reinhabits, recreates lost moments; sometimes she considers how impossible it is to do so.
Beyond Katrina also demonstrates concern and commitment to the present and future, especially to survivors of Katrina’s devastation and to the damaged, disrespected natural environment of the Gulf Coast. Trethewey does not, however, project herself into the future as constantly and vividly as she does into the past. I’ve been rereading Native Guard looking for tomorrowland and even instances of future tense are entangled with history as fate (“my native land, this place they’ll bury me”). Dreaming conjures alternate timelines in a few poems, but generally Trethewey is concerned with how the past inhabits the present. She voyages constantly between the two like the obsessed historians in Connie Willis’ time-travel novels.
I’m trying to read poetry as speculative fiction, a genre closely associated with the future. If poetry looks mainly backward, where does that put my argument? There is a fair amount of poetry addressed to the future through children. Some poets prophesy revolution (Langston Hughes), their own deaths (Emily Dickinson), or environmental apocalypse (W.S. Merwin just for starters). And the sort of remembering Trethewey does is very much about the future, though indirectly.
The most uncanny, haunting lyric projection I can think of is in Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose…Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.” Here’s the spaceship/ TARDIS (n.b. Eric)/ multidirectional time travel device I’m looking for, and it’s an incredibly powerful one. Whitman’s ferry as De Lorean.
How else do lyric poets speculate? What am I not thinking of?