Tuesday, September 26, 2006

But wait ...

... we can't forget that it is T.S. Eliot 's birthday (hat tip to John Brumfield for reminding me). Here are some sites to visit:

What the Thunder Said

The T.S. Eliot Page

TS Eliot

Four Quartets

The quartets are for my money the greatest poetic achievement of 20th century. It is useful to remember and ponder that

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.


  1. John Ashbery: Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror? The very late Wallace Stevens? Or Auden's seldom acknowledged The Dark Years? Frank, I only ask.

  2. Well, Bryan, I take a back seat to no one when it comes to an appreciation of Wallace Stevens - and Auden, for that matter. And the very late Wallace Stevens would probably be my second choice. (I also very much admire Self-Portrait, though I don't think it is nearly as profound as Eliot's quartets.) But the quartets strike me as a kind of summa with no real counterpart in anyone else's body of work. It was probably a silly thing for me to say, but then I was just saying where I'd put my money.

  3. Neat debate. But we need to get our terms defined. What is meant by "greatest poetical achievement."

    My assertion will be that Kerouac's life as a poet would be the greatest poetical achievement. He changed worldwide culture.

    Other biggie poets would be Eliot and Stevens, as mentioned, and, of course, Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath.

    On other grounds, Frost's poems will probably be enjoyed by more people for more centuries to come. Eliot's and Plath's seemed tied (Plath with an undying cult following if nothing else, and there's much else), and then Stevens's followed by Kerouac's poems.

    However, I just did a little social Google study, to see which poet has been able to have his or her name kept current in the news. I news Googled their names. Here are the results:

    5. Sylvia Plath with about 50

    4. Wallace Stevens with about 72

    3. Jack Kerouac with about 118

    2. Robert Frost with about 247

    1. T. S. Eliot with about 276

    But, Frost has the news from his farm in Derry going, and Eliot has the "Today in History" items to add in. Yet Plath should be piggy-backing onto the Ted Hughes articles currently out.

    If we speak of which poet has influenced more poets, then Eliot gets the century's prize, so far anyway. One footnote will be that, up until Poetry Magazine got the $100 million, their advertising based an incredible amount of their credence on their picking Prufock up in their early history. Those are big shoulders for one poet.

    If we go with literary merit, we get the slippery slope, that slides back to Kerouac, for his entire world-changing contribution. Next year, of course, he'll be back in the news.

  4. I guess I don't think of Kerouac primarily as a poet. I think of him as primarily a prose writer who wrote some very good poems. I like D.H. Lawrence's poetry a lot, but I think of him also as primarily a prose writer. Also, yesterday I re-read a bit of Eliot's verse. "The Hollow Men, "Preludes," and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," for example, remain startlingly contemporary.

  5. Thomas Hardy? Do you read his poetry over there. You should.

  6. The greatest thing of anything is hard to determine, possibly impossible.

    However, I have thought the Four Quartets to be one of the greatest poems I have ever read, and re-read, since I first read them in my late teens. For years, I've had an ambition to do a series of string quartets inspired by them; sketches exists, but I've never taken the project very far.

    When one of my composition mentors died, in the mid 1980s, George Cacioppo, the last thing he had been reading was Little Gidding. I remember being in the production studio at the student radio station, WCBN in Ann Arbor, MI, at the U. of M., when the news came in. I had been recording solo piano improvs, which were going to be broadcast later. I immediately was able to finish an "elegy for George," out of that material. (It's on my website.) But the connection to the Four Quartets, and there complete appropriateness to that moment, and to George's last days, has always lingered with me, in a numinous, archetypal, synchronistic way.

    In terms of Rus' point, as to which poet has had the greatest influence on 20th century poetry—whether or not one likes that poet, or their work—then, I agree, it would probably be Eliot or Pound. I also agree that Frost is up there, in terms of most numbers of likely future readers.

    Yes, we do read Hardy over here, but he doesn't have quite as great a reputation as others.

    In matters of this nature, I find it interesting to go back and re-read Conrad Aiken's "Collected Criticism," in which I think he really was prophetic about his assessments of a lot of these poems, and poets, from the first half of the 20th C. That's a book I recommend to poets all the time, and even more to literary critics, as a model of how to do criticism masterfully.

  7. Interesting discussion, though the desire to decide what's the best of anything gives me pause.

    I'm just working now working my way through W.H.A's "The Dark Years", which is deeply compelling. One commentator I read puts a Christian religious gloss over it, but is he mssing something? Anyone?