01 June, 2009

Junior Poet and the (crazy?) upcoming semester

So this fall I'm going to be starting the famous Junior poet project that all UD English majors must complete before moving on in their academic careers... well, I mean, they could always scurry off to some ignominious alternative if the prospect of delving into the life and works of a single major English-language poet is too daunting. We leave them that choice. Yet no self-respecting English major would do that, not even one so intimidated by poetry as I.

Yes, I hate to break it to a scandalized world, but for all my obsession with the great classics of every age, I am not a fan of poetry. As a kid I hated the lack of storyline, and even more, despised the blatant emotionalism that characterized so much of it. I'm thinking Tennyson of Byron here, really, or maybe one of those typical English didactic poets who addressed poor Victorian children about the virtues of the ancient Romans. That these characterizations are a gross over-simplification I am well aware, but my childhood experience mars my enjoyment of fine verse nonetheless.

Yet I am slowly beginning to shed this prejudice, which means that there's some hope for me in the upcoming semester. I trace the first loosening of my unflinching disdain to my sophmore year in high school when I really read and listened to "The Raven" for the first time. Yes, it's an emotional poem, but the pulsing urgency of the rhythm captivated me, appealing as it did to my fascination with the sound and cadence of language.

Literary Traditions II at UD was another important step. I had a quite brilliant English teacher for this class, whose common-sense approach to poetry helped to weaken my vague idea that most poetry people were hopelessly head-in-the-clouds types who believed - in classic Rousseauian fashion - that the words of the poet came straight from the mouth of the divine forces of nature. And we covered a remarkable variety of verse, so with my exposure to the form somewhat increased, I began again to be delighted by the variety of styles, tones, rhythms, and so forth.

But for this class I return to the one poet I really have liked through all this time: T.S. Eliot. Some dislike what is seen as a tendency in his poetry to put all human experience under a microscope to examine the most common human emotions scientifically. He does have a penchant for intellectualization, but it is not so much an emotionless intellectualization as one that rebels against the simple conventions of poetic expression: why does the subject of poetry always have to be love, for instance, and why always the same two or three well-worn metaphors, once fresh, but now seldom more than lazy imitations of the brilliant poets of the past? And why must poetry idealize emotion for its own sake, as Rousseau and his ilk would have it?

There is a certain pessimism and cynicalness in his pre-conversion poetry, it's true. He's disillusioned with the world, caught up in a vortex of questions about the impact of temporality on human life, on the effect of language on human knowledge, on the apparent meaninglessness of modern life. These are concerns he retains after his conversion, but they are approached in a different way once he turns to Anglican Christianity to find a solution. There is still a sense of dissatisfaction with the world, but it is a dissatisfaction that points to a solution, often only subtly. There's no longer a feel of emptiness in the poems, as you end with after reading The Wasteland and his repetitive, slightly ominous, yet almost forlorn invocation of the thunder at the very end.

Anyway, those are just some preliminary ramblings on the fellow's work, based on my as yet quite superficial readings of his works. Plenty more musings will likely follow, because I think I'll probably have the subject on my mind more than once in the coming six months.

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