Undead T. S. Eliot

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?

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