This is amusing. I'm curious how it is that you know what I know,
or is that just a stylistic flourish using standard academic cant?
 
P.
----- Original Message -----
From: [log in to unmask] href="mailto:[log in to unmask]">DIana Manister
To: [log in to unmask] href="mailto:[log in to unmask]">[log in to unmask]
Sent: Sunday, April 11, 2010 3:40 AM
Subject: Re: Biography

Peter,

He could only pursue approved interests and you know it. He was molded into a representative of his class. If he went in low rent directions he would have been herded back into the cultured fold. He didn't play ball with the local boys and whistle at girls on the corner. Constraints are subtly imposed.

As for bringing this to bear on an interpretation of Prufrock, it adds some confirmation to seeing P as overly constrained and class-bound. All poetry must stand on its own or fail, but anathematizing biographical information as an interpretive resource is New Critical impoverishment.

Diana

Sent from my iPod

On Apr 11, 2010, at 2:45 AM, Peter Montgomery <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

I agree, Terry. As well I'm somewhat dubious about the
assertion that Eliot as a child was "constrained by strong
parental pressure." As I recall he was givien virtually all the
time he wanted to pursue his reading and writing interests
wherever they might take him. He was basically left to himself.
I'm not at all sure that personal freedom is reflected in J.A.P.
 
P.
----- Original Message -----
From: [log in to unmask] href="mailto:[log in to unmask]">Terry Traynor
To: [log in to unmask] href="mailto:[log in to unmask]">[log in to unmask]
Sent: Saturday, April 10, 2010 5:04 PM
Subject: Re: Biography

Diana Manister wrote:

>Knowing that Eliot was constrained by strong parental
>pressure informs a reader's understanding of his texts.
>Prufrock for example second-guesses his impulses, so
>he fails to act on them; i.e.,"Do I dare to eat a peach?"
>
>He continues to feel observed and judged even when his
>parents are absent, an indication that he has introjected their
>watchfulness and now polices himself to a crippling degree.
>
>This understanding mitigates an exclusively spiritual focus
>on his plays and poems, privileging ordinary human conflict
>as a theme.

If I knew nothing about Eliot's life, I would still interpret Prufrock as someone who second-guesses himself, is self-observant and self-policing, etc. The reason I would is that the poem on its own shows what sort of person Prufrock is. Knowing about Eliot's relationship with his parents may be psychoanalytically interesting, but it is unnecessary for reading the poem, for understanding the character of Prufrock, or for recognizing the poem's concerns with ordinary human conflict.

Carrol Cox wrote:

>Can you _not_ use biographical knowledge you have? How can the
>knower cease knowing? Can you even know whether or not you are
>using biographical knowledge you have as you read a poem?

>Biography is being discussed in this thread as though readers made an
>abstract choice to use or not to use biography in formal arguments.
>Can you, while reading TWL, suppress your knowledge that the author
>was a man, not a teenage lesbian?

Readers indeed have no choice but to bring their biographical knowledge to their reading, but they do have a choice about what they do with that knowledge when interpreting the text. Here, for example, is what someone could do with knowledge that Pound was a virulent anti-Semite:

------------

Pound's "Causa" (from _Lustra_) is a four-line poem that many people mistakenly read as an expression of admiration or even love for four unnamed people:

I join these words for four people,
Some others may overhear them,
O world, I am sorry for you,
You do not know these four people.

The unidentified "words" that the speaker "joins" are probably not words of praise, but words of condemnation, because the four people are most likely Jewish. (If they weren't, the speaker would name them.) The speaker realizes that other people who overhear the words might condemn him as an anti-Semite, but he believes that if they knew the four people, they would agree with him. He is sorry for the world because it is ignorant of what the speaker believes to be the truth about Jews.

------------

The above exercise in literary interpretation is perverse because the writer takes biographical knowledge about the poet and applies it to a text that offers no support for applying it. What the writer could have and should have done is set aside the biographical knowledge as irrelevant to this particular poem, just as the fact that Woody Guthrie praised Stalin is irrelevant to the truth and beauty of the chorus to "Pastures of Plenty." This is not a question of "suppressing" or "forgetting" what one knows; it's a question of exercising judgment about appropriate and inappropriate applications of what one knows. I'm not sure I'd call that judgment "an abstract choice," but maybe it is.

Ken Armstrong wrote:

>what of someone who must follow the poem -- imitate the action
>of the poem -- to create the art experience for himself that the
>poem recreates? Isn't this a common way of looking at reading
>-- the reader as co-creator?

"Create" is a word with multiple connotations, whether used alone or with prefixes. You could say "the new policy created confusion" or "the chemists re-created the conditions of the original experiment," and in both cases you'd clearly not be referring to artistic creation. In the context of poetry, the phrase "co-creators" does imply artistic creation; it suggests the collaboration of artists. One could argue about whether Pound was a co-creator of TWL or just its inspired editor, but to say that TWL's readers are "co-creators" is to give them credit that belongs to the artist. In _Seven Types of Ambiguity_ Empson says that "the process of getting to understand a poet is precisely that of constructing his poems in one's own mind," but Empson never cedes any authorship or "creatorship" of the poems to that mind: not only does he identify the poems readers construct as "his" (referring back, with an unfortunately gendered pronoun, to "a poet"), but he immediately goes on to say: "Of course, it is wrong to construct the wrong poem" - meaning a poem other than what the poet wrote. The problem is, as soon as I say "what the poet wrote," I beg the question, because "what the poet wrote" is nothing but black marks on a page unless the reader does something with them, and what that "something" is is the very issue at hand. Since Empson's time, there's been a lot of research and a lot of theorizing about just what's entailed in the reading process, but I haven't kept up with it since reader-response theory, which seemed to me to exalt the subjectivities of readers at the expense of texts.

I disagree about using the term "co-creator," but I completely agree that whatever clarification biographical information might bring to some puzzling aspect of a poem "must work within the action (artificial) proper to the poem." I take it that the parenthetical "artificial" is a reminder that art is artifice, not life. This artificiality or fictiveness of art differentiating it from life is a difficult concept to articulate because it sounds like it's claiming, ridiculously, that art lacks the capacity to be realistic or true-to-life, but the artificiality of art is central to questions about how valid a particular biographical reading of the art may be. We are all stuck with the facts of our own lives, but an artist releases those facts from life by selecting, manipulating, and shaping them until they belong not to their origins, but to the work of art whose components they have become. To my mind, this process of transformation from life into art is somewhat analogous to what Eliot says in "Philip Massinger" about the relocation of poetic material: "The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly diferent than that from which it is torn." Reading his poems, we can identify an allusion's source in a text or in his life, but the source doesn't explain what the poet has done with material; only the work itself can do that.

Terry