Sunday, July 19, 2009

T.S. Eliot International Summer School

An Academic Tourist's Perspective

It’s taking me a while to process my thoughts on the first annual T.S. Eliot Summer School. The nine-day event was jam-packed with information and events. I came away with a spiral notebook completely filled with thoughts and ideas that will have to be sorted out later. In some cases, “later” could mean years. For the time being, all I can do is try to sum up the overall experience in an effort to encourage others to attend the second annual T.S. Eliot Summer School, which is already being planned.

On Saturday, June 27, Ronald Schuchard opened this year’s program by calling for a reevaluation of T.S. Eliot from a 21st century perspective that humanizes the poet and emphasizes the magic of his poetry. Co-director Warwick Gould added that the summer school was an attempt to make the notoriously enigmatic poet more accessible to curious students and casual enthusiasts as well as academics. Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney concentrated on the magic of poetry -- he spoke about the “auditory imagination,” drawing connections between poetry and prayer (both, he said, are vows that we make), and referred to Eliot as modern poetry’s subconscious mind.

In these introductions, it was hard not to hear the voice of Eliot coming through. In a 1930 essay on Dante he wrote, “It is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.” In that same essay he asserted, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

Eliot the Poet

Scottish poet Robert Crawford reinforced this point a few days later, in a revelatory lecture on Eliot’s poem "Marina," illustrating that the “subterrean music” of poetry is inseparable from the poem’s meaning. "Marina," he said, is (at least in part) a poem about Eliot’s longing for a child of his own. Accordingly, the music expresses “atunement with the rhythms of creation.” Paul Muldoon, current poetry editor for The New Yorker magazine and 1994 winner of the prestigious T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize, supported the dialogue about the music of poetry by confessing that his own early (unpublished) poetry was a series of imitations of cadences in "The Hollow Men" – proof that he absorbed the rhythm before he found the words.

Over the course of the week, there were many discussions about Eliot’s attempts to move “beyond words.” Eliot admitted that Four Quartets had been inspired by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, and biographer Lyndall Gordon noted that Beethoven was nearly deaf when he composed that quartet. Just as this string quartet was the musician’s attempt to move beyond music, she said, Four Quartets was Eliot’s attempt to move beyond words. Eliot himself said (in the 1942 lecture "The Music of Poetry") that the poet is always "occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist."

Professor Denis Donoghue strongly disagreed, saying that this statement was “true only in its beauty.” He remarked that it is absurd to suggest that words are somehow capable of moving beyond words… in his opinion, language (to quote another brilliant thinker) is the limit of our minds. Student Ross Cohen spoke up to help mediate the argument – suggesting that the limitations lie not in language but in the mind of the person using it. He referred to Eliot’s infamous criticism of Hamlet to illustrate his point. Gordon reiterated that "all poetry, insofar as it works through metaphor, operates at that frontier" because "metaphor itself pushes language beyond its ordinary limits."

For me, the meaning of Eliot’s poetry was expanded with every lecture and every reading over the course of the week. On June 30, we were treated to a live presentation of the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour, featuring Jeremy Irons, Dominic West, Seamus Heaney and Ann Carteret. Irons kicked things off with a reading of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I was thrilled because this was a combination of two of my personal passions: horror movies and T.S. Eliot. (I am most familiar with Irons from his dual role in David Cronenberg’s horror film DEAD RINGERS. From now on when people ask what Eliot’s poetry and horror movies have in common, I will answer: “Jeremy Irons.”)

That said, I understood why one of my fellow students complained that Irons, whose reading was surprisingly theatrical, robbed the Prufrock persona of vulnerability. No such complaint could be made about his performance in the role of Sweeney, from “Fragment of an Agon.” Irons, West and Carteret brought this dialogue alive so powerfully that everyone in the room was astounded – even Seamus Heaney, who at the end of the performance looked positively giddy. Heaney was a warm and enthusiastic presence throughout the week, but this is the only time that I saw him looking unreservedly gleeful, like a kid at the circus… and his energy was contagious. Afterwards, Heaney joined the quartet for a show-stopping performance of The Waste Land. The poem indisputably came most alive when he read the opening sections of “The Fire Sermon” and “What the Thunder Said.”

But even that could not top Heaney and Crawford’s impassioned reading of Eliot’s final poetic statement – “Little Gidding” – in front of the tiny country church that inspired it. That was all the proof I needed that the music and the meaning of poetry are one. In that regard, this simple reading was an achievement that no written essay could compete with, and a moment that made me extremely grateful to be part of this summer school program.

Eliot the Man

Biographer Lyndall Gordon led the charge on the mission to humanize Eliot for a new generation. She gave a lecture on a pattern of timeless moments – “moments when love moves past its object” – that defined his personal life. The main examples were said to reflect Eliot’s mysterious relationship with Emily Hale, and at least one student was deeply moved by the biographer’s approach to this topic. Hannah Samuelsson wondered aloud how Gordon could take for granted that Eliot had been in love with Emily. Gordon responded that the genre of biography is necessarily somewhat subjective, and said that she chose to emphasize certain facts that might lead the reader to draw this conclusion. As we read about Eliot, each of us develops our own unique perspective on who he really was. (No doubt that’s why there are so many works of biographical criticism on the notoriously secretive poet.)

Professor David Moody dug even deeper into the Eliot’s life by contrasting his worldview with that of his fellow poet and friend Ezra Pound. I found this lecture hugely illuminating because I’ve never been able to wrap my head around Pound’s work. By contrasting Eliot’s mission to save the individual soul with Pound’s secular mission to “save the world,” Moody provided me with a method of approach. I don’t entirely agree with his interpretation of The Waste Land’s fourth section ("Death by Water") as an expression of Eliot’s nihilism – I think that the sense of nihilism in the finished poem has at least as much to do with Pound’s edits as with Eliot’s words – but I ultimately learned more from this lecture than I did from other lectures that reinforced my own thoughts and opinions.

Professor Barbara Hardy managed to put a human face on Eliot by remembering a time when she encountered him in the lift inside the Russell Square tube station. She didn’t address him, but inched closer so that she could look for the initials on his briefcase and verify that she was indeed standing in an elevator with one of her favorite poets. Following Lyndall Gordon’s open-ended reading of The Waste Land and David Moody’s accusation of nihilism, Hardy presented a more sympathetic reading. She opined that the sea imagery echoes a passage in Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim, in which one character says that by submitting to the will of the sea – by surrendering to its destructive force – one can stay afloat and survive. Hearing this, I was reminded of something that another student, Tom Day, had said during the course of the week. He finds hope in the fragmentation of The Waste Land, noting that Eliot does not say “I cannot connect anything with anything.” Instead, Eliot affirms, “I can connect nothing with nothing.” The word “can,” for this reader, makes all the difference… and such attention to minutiae serves as an illustration of just how intense the study of Eliot’s poetry can get.

Ron Schuchard offered another reading of The Waste Land, as a “love poem of personal desolation.” He noted that young readers are often energized by the suffering in Eliot’s poetry, rather than disheartened by perceived nihilism, and offered this advice to the next generation of Eliot teachers: “Don’t exclude the mind that suffers from the mind that creates.” Eliot is more like us than we sometimes imagine… a flesh and blood, deeply-flawed human being in search of meaning.

In a 1953 lecture, Eliot said that “the poet has something germinating in him for which he must find words; but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order. When you have the words for it, the ‘thing’ for which the words had to be found has disappeared, replaced by a poem.” Poetry was Eliot’s magic – the creation of a new whole that is more than the sum of old parts – and it retains the power to expand our thoughts, emotions and experiences… enriching us not just as thinkers or writers, but as people.

I believe this is what Eliot meant about “purifying the dialect of the tribe”… He was not merely striving to preserve language; he wanted to expand the limits of our language, thereby expanding the limits of our minds, enhancing our ability to communicate, and enlarging our collective consciousness.

Eliot the Critic

To advance this agenda, Eliot assumed the role of preeminent critic of art and culture in his later years. He aimed to reveal links to the past and the future that could give his readers a sense of their place in the continuum of history, and to a world beyond history.

Professor Jennifer Formichelli argued that the most obvious way the poet did this was through his epigraphs. Through short, mysterious references, Eliot makes the reader want to know the authors he is referencing, she said. I agree completely. In fact, I first discovered Eliot because someone else had made such an allusion to "The Hollow Men" – proof that this technique works. I love Formichelli's “dream” of creating an anthology of the pieces that Eliot alludes to in his works. What a mammoth anthology that would be, including works by Dante, Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists, George Herbert and the Metaphysical Poets, and hundreds of others.

The influence of Shakespeare was a popular topic at the summer school. Both Denis Donoghue and Sir Christopher Ricks gave lectures on Eliot’s engagement with the greatest writer in the English language. Donoghue made the case that Shakespeare’s play Pericles and Eliot’s poem "Marina" constitute the height of their co-mingling. Ricks, with a command of rhetorical language worthy of his subjects, reinforced Eliot’s evaluation of Othello as a play about a “universally weak” man, rather than a weak play. Both speakers acknowledged Eliot’s esteem for the mature works of Shakespeare that reflect the culmination of a unified body of work following an intricate pattern.

Professor Jason Harding tackled Eliot’s engagement with a much lesser-known writer, French philosopher Jacques Maritain. I admit I knew nothing about Maritain before this presentation, and so I sat spellbound as Harding explained Eliot’s mindset during the tumultuous years between his religious conversation (1927) and the writing of "Burnt Nurton" (1935) according to the influences of Maritain’s ultra-conservative philosophy. Professor Anthony Cuda cast another light on these dark years by examining Eliot’s evolution into a dramatist during his time as a critic for the London periodical The Atheneaum. From my perspective, both of these lectures on what might seem like minor influences were major contributions to the study of Eliot, and I look forward to seeing them in print.

All of the lectures showed how Eliot’s role as a critic helped to define him as a poet and a person. In a 1956 lecture, Eliot said that his criticism was a “byproduct” of his “private poetry workshop.” Later, he added, “I have written best about writers who have influenced my own poetry.” Eliot has influenced all of us. He is, as Seamus Heaney said, modern poetry’s subconscious mind. I’d go even further to say that he is a significant part of the 20th century’s subconscious mind. We encounter his ideas and his poetic phrases everywhere… Often, they come from people who couldn’t identify the source if you asked them to. The poet and the critic have been completely absorbed into pop culture, and that’s proof that the man knew his magic.


This summary of the (impeccably organized) academic program does not adequately convey the full summer school experience, which also included a few field trips. Professor Wim Van Mierlo led a walking tour of the City of London, pointing out sites that were borrowed for symbolic purposes in The Waste Land. (I posted a shorter-but-similar “virtual tour” on my blog a couple of years ago.)

We also visited three out of the four landscapes that inspired Eliot’s Four Quartets. At each location, we were treated to additional lectures by Mark Ford (on Burnt Norton), Gail McDonald (on East Coker), and Ronald Schuchard (on Little Gidding). At the end of the week, Professor Jewel Spears Brooker gave a stellar lecture about the influence of Julian of Norwich on “Little Gidding.” I will post some thoughts on each of those presentations and also some photos of the locations over the next few days.


  1. Joe, these are fanTAStic posts! Thanks so much for your investment into setting them down so beautifully. It was a great pleasure to meet you & I hope the turning world will keep finding us in the same place again and again.

    all the best to you! please do keep in touch.

  2. Joe,

    Good on you to capture the spirit of the (magical) occasion. As you know, I, too, question a strong notion of nihilism behind the open conclusion of TWL, since I raised it in question time after Prof. Moody's lecture, and had an interesting discussion with him about it afterwards. My guestion: what is the nature of your thought about this nihilism/ non-nihilism?

    Warm wishes from a fellow-school-attendee,


  3. Etienne,

    Thanks for writing. The Waste Land Facsimile offers evidence that Eliot approached the "drowning" in Section IV as a symbol of entrapment/death AND surrender/rebirth. Ezra Pound suggested drastic cuts to Eliot's original draft, leaving us with a shortened section that does seem to suggest nihilism to readers focused on Eliot's metaphysics.
    I believe that Eliot's original draft of Section IV adds more dramatic weight to the final words of surrender in Section V: "shantih shantih shantih" Pound's cuts, however, make it seem that Eliot's metaphysical outlook was a bit less complicated - and more stagnant - than I think it really was.

    It was great to meet you at the TSE Summer School. I'd love to see some of your footage up on YouTube or the like.