I did not imply that the words are not often carefully chosen or that a poet
or any writer will not re-examine a text word by word. But that does not
entail the conclusion that there is a hidden coded meaning placed there to
be found. It means the piece must in some way work, be right, be exact.
What it means to be exact may vary. In Eliot's case it may well have
been at times to sound right or to evoke particular emotions. I am quite
sure--but not sure where at the moment--that he said lines often came to
him first as a rhythm. My point is that this is not a puzzle to be solved but
a text of words, sounds, rhythms, images, emotions to be experienced.
And in some cases there may well be essential meanings involved in that.
It seems, for example, that TWL is in some sense about loss and about
the horror of WWI as much as about myth. But it is not about any
absolute one meaning. Nor will close reading get you such a meaning.
You yourself make that clear in your speculations on the male--male
desire possible in the poem. There is no way to demonstrate that the
Hyacinth girl is male; there is no way to demonstrate that the Hyacinth girl
is female. The former makes sense in many contexts--not least
Verdenal's letter reminding Eliot of the sensual beauty of an April
landscape they had once shared and Eliot's image of the lilacs, and the
fact the Hyacinthus was a beautiful youth. On the other hand, the speaker
of that episode can be identified with the male figure in "A Game of
Chess," who is married, and Eliot fell in love with Emily Hale after the time
in Paris with Verdenal. The scene is profound and profoundly evocative
either way I think, but it is not a coded truth to be decoded.
Close reading is not something one does or does not "believe in"; it is a
way of studying a text regardless of a specific theory, despite its historical
connection with new criticism. So of course I do it. It also does not entail
the conclusion of a specific meaning to be found for any poem.
I think the most valuable early experience I had with Eliot was listening to
X. J. Kennedy read TWL in a jazz rhythm in my first literature class. I
came to a poem that was a sound and rhythm and feeling long before I
knew of Weston and Frazer (then, if not now, the dominant sources to be
studied). And hearing it read by an actor who can do every voice and be
transformed with each will bring it alive AND reveal meaning in ways not
available through hunting down allusions and trying to make a particular
shape appear. Though of course I read sources too and see them as
revealing. At the moment, I find the most illuminating ones, oddly enough,
are WWI histories and memoirs. But that only means we read through
I am reminded of Marlow's description of meaning as not like a nut inside a
shell that you can crack open and remove but a haze of light around it. Of
course that is a symbolist claim, but it provides a distinction.
Date sent: Tue, 18 Feb 2003 13:52:48 EST
Send reply to: "T. S. Eliot Discussion forum." <[log in to unmask]>
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Poems as 150 steps?
To: [log in to unmask]
In a message dated 2/18/03 12:58:45 PM EST, [log in to unmask]
> I agree that the 150 steps analogy says little about the poem, but I
> wonder, Steve, about the assumption that a poem is a structure always
> consciously contrived for very conscious purposes. I don't think most
> poets describe what they do that way, and certainly Eliot suggested
> very different processes in many places, not just the "rhythmic
> grumbling" comment. I think very often the words emerge or voices
> speak and only afterward does the poet find some form or edit what has
> been discovered.
It's an interesting discussion.
While I certainly believe poets put together images for all sorts of
reasons, I think, in the end, there actually ARE reasons. If you look at
the back-and-forth editing of TWL by Eliot and Pound (and look in the
LETTERS to see how they discussed individual words), and also look at the
editing of some of the 4Q passages between Eliot and John Hayward (again,
discussing specific words), I just don't see that Eliot's works were put
together without great attention to detail. He may not have planned it all
out from day 1, but upon re-reading it, he edited out words and
punctuation that didn't work.
Just look at the TWL editing. He's got comments to Pound like "I'll used
'closed car' -- I've already use 'taxi' and I can't use 'taxi' more than
once". In other words, he's thinking about every word, every image. What
I'm trying to say is that while the whole poem may not be planned out in
gory detail before any of it is committed to paper, I think that the final
version (that the readers get to see) IS gone over in minute detail. So
I'm agreeing with you that it may be only 'afterwards" that "it all fits",
but, in the end, it all fits.
Put another way, Nancy, do you believe in "close reading"? The way I
understand "close reading" is that the reader looks at and questions every
detail in the text, from images to punctuation to meter to rhyme scheme,
etc, etc, etc, all for the purpose of appreciating the artistry and
understanding meaning. If the final work was not carefully constructed,
"close reading" would be a pointless exercise since the poem is not that
Personally, I think close reading of TSE is the only way to go. So if he
says, "Rachael nee Rabinovich" we shouldn't just say "some kind of
Anti-Semitic slur". We should say things like: "Rabinovich" -- "Rabbi's
daughter", why is that there? And "Rachael nee Rabinovich" -- Gee, I don't
know Rachael's married name, only her maiden name. Why is he doing THAT?
What IS her married name?
Anyway, that's how I approach poetry in general and TSE in particular.
-- Steve --