Biography is fine. Use of art to study biography is fine. Life, however, does NOT explain imagination.
The Biographical Critic versus The New CriticAccosted by a work of art (in a book, a journal, a news magazine) a biographical critic would like to learn all about the artist's life and the circumstances of the piece's composition before he is able to appreciate the work. And when all that is learnt, the piece would be pinned down to the wall in a formulated phrase. That's surely case of imaginative failure. A dread failure to which many a critic are liable these days.CROn Wednesday, October 28, 2015, Ken Armstrong <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:Sorry you think it is rude. I don't see it that way. Direct, yes, but meant to be taken at face value. You and I disagree in fundamental ways. You started the email to which mine was an answer with "I am unable..." My answer is meant to be enabling. It was addressed to you because you asked me for an answer, but it could have easily been addressed to anyone else, as it was not a remonstrance (contra Carrol's take), but the postulation of my understanding of what one must bring to the poem to read it as a poem. I'm disappointed you took it otherwise, but not honestly surprised. You want to be in conversations, but only if you can be left out of them. I don't think that is a paradox or a possibility.
As far as it goes, I stand by it. I've said repeatedly that one's appreciation of E's life and effects contribute to understanding his poetry. But it does not do the essential first thing which the latter studies must be subordinate to, and that's the rub: subordinate to. And decidedly with E's earliest poetry, one does not need information outside of the poems to understand their force as poems, not as coded commentaries on E's life. Obviously E's life -- the man who suffers -- enters into them as material. But the inability of his critics to understand even the earliest poems in their dynamic as poems and instead with the weight of gravity refer them to E's life for their meaning speaks to a general paucity of understanding across the Eliot criticism spectrum.
As far as New Criticism goes, that's your bugaboo, not mine. On current criticism, I'd sign off on Peter's remarks; there's no progress in the arts, and that includes most assuredly the art of criticism.
On 10/27/2015 12:29 PM, Nancy Gish wrote:
I have been trying to think how one could answer this very personal, rude, and astonishing direct address informing me by name what I need to do and how I have failed.So I have failed again. There is no way to answer it except in kind, and that is not useful.But the assumptions behind Ken's theory (it is a theory, not a fact or set of facts) are simply no longer tenable. As a quick random sample, read Jayme Stayer's work that CR posted. Or the fascinating sources in Robert Crawford's bio or Nancy Hargrove's account of Eliot in Paris or the connections in Däumer and Bagchee's collection of essays on international Eliot or Anita Patterson's fascinating account of links to Japan or Louis Rainey's dating of TWL fragments by paper and typewriter or the many studies of Eliot and Dante or Eliot's own letters or the writings of his colleagues and friends--read anything other than New Critical rewrites if you are at all interested in poetry and its importance. Read any major scholarship in the past several decades, and you will not find this assumption that a poem, as published, is a thing in itself with no connection to its author, culture, history, composition, or anything at all except its meaning "to me"--which many students imagine is anything at all.I have no idea what Ken imagines I have been doing for half my life to be utterly obtuse and incompetent about reading poetry.Nancy>>> Ken Armstrong 10/25/15 10:20 AM >>>
You and I it appears think of "making" differently. In my way of thinking about it, it is not possible for us to "know a great deal more about it than Lewis did" -- because Lewis had the poem. We might learn more about the background to its composition, but either the "making" is accessible through the poem itself, ie it is a successful poem, or it isn't. And the degree to which it is or isn't, or a comprehending rendering of its registry as a poem, what it does as a poem, also does not depend on ever expanding background data.
I know what the usual objections to this are, and I know where they go off track. But communicating that I'm not so good at, because really, to understand what I'm trying to get at you 'd have to, as Eliot once said, believe it first. Perhaps "see it first" or "experience it first" would be less objectionable ways of putting it. The long and short of it is, you have to work out not what the poem meant for Eliot -- he gave you all you need to know when he published it -- but what it means for you, Nancy Gish, for your existence as a human being, i.e. you have to participate, really participate with your whole being, in the creative act that is the making of the poem. It can't just be Eliot's life on the line, it has to be yours, too. Always referring it back to Eliot only guarantees that the creative act will never be availed to a reader, thus the whole purpose of having the poem in the first place is defeated.
As I said, I'm not particularly skilled at presenting this. I offered the Lewis piece really just because Eliot in it is so un-Prufrock like, I hoped it might be a wake-up call that shakes someone off that dead-end track.
On 10/23/2015 12:49 PM, Nancy Gish wrote:
I am unable to see here what the "meaning" of the poem ostensibly is. But if it is about the "making," we know a great deal more than Lewis did (though the excerpt below says nothing about the "making" of "Prufrock." In a fascinating seminar led by Cassandra Laity at the TSE Society, a lot of new information appeared. In my own case, I was focused on the writing of "Prufrock's Pervigilium," which was inserted in the Notebook and then removed (See IMH). It offers a quite disturbing and very different voice. But it is part of what was very much in the "making."What, for example, is presumed to be the meaning that provides an absolute significance to "grow old" as literal?Or did I miss something?Nancy>>> Ken Armstrong 10/23/15 12:30 PM >>>
Some years ago, when my wife's father was stopped going the wrong way on a one way street in this small town, the officer, well known to Red, said, "Red, don't you know this is a one way street?" "But Rod," said Red, "I'm only going one way."
Red, of course, knew he was making a joke with the law. Happily he was let off with a warning. Carrol, on the other hand, wants us to believe that a one way street really is a two way street. Well, okay, you pays your money and you makes your choices. But what you choose doesn't determine the nature of the street, only the approach you bring to it.
I don't see any new questions or pressing observations in his post, and all in all don't believe my certainty exceeds anything Carrol always has on display. To the degree that "Prufrock" is a successful poem, it's meaning inheres in its making, which, again, would have been what Pound so enthusiastically pounced on.
Consider Wyndham Lewis' account of meeting TSE:
" As I entered the room I discovered an agreeable stranger parked up one of the sides of the triangle. He softly growled at me, as we shook hands. American. A graceful neck, I noted, with what elsewhere I have described as 'a Gioconda smile.' Though not feminine -- besides being physically large his personality visibly moved within the male pale -- there were dimples in the warm dark skin; undoubtedly he used his eyes a little like a Leonardo. He was a very attractive fellow then....I liked him, though I may say not at all connecting him with texts Ezra had shown me about some fictional character dreadfully troubled with old age, in which the lines....'I am growing old....'.....I was unable to make head or tail of.
Ezra now lay flung back in typical posture of aggressive ease... However, he kept steadily beneath his quizzical but self-satisfied observation his latest prize, or discovery -- the author of Prufrock. The new collector's piece went on smiling and growling out melodiously his apt and bright answers to promptings from the proud figure of his exhausted captor."
After this description of a most un-Prufrockian like character, Lewis stumbles in the same place Carrol does, but only partly for the same reason: he can't make sense of the meaning of the "growing old" line for Prufrock, whereas Carrol's attention is in another dimensionaaaaa, trying to make it work for Eliot. The answer lies in how Prufrock's actions and alarms make him what he is and bring him to an end meant to be perceived as his fall, but moreover, in the first place, meant to be perceived by the structure and technique and signs in the poem. I think the telling phrase used to be "follow the lines of force."
PS I am impressed by Carrol's evident respect for "Prufrock." In a post from him I stumbled upon by virtue of my email client deciding to open to posts from 2009, he noted that in the long run Eliot would be largely forgotten by future generations with only two poems, in a minor way, meeting the test of time. No doubt "Prufrock" is one of them. I suppose it is only a matter of time until this projection comes to pass, and we will all be on the Marianne Moore list, discussing as per Carrol those much richer and more powerful poems.