Thursday, March 26, 2009

Frosty Eliotonians

Ok, I have some posts I want to get out, but first need to give the other side of the Frost discussion, because a friend called me out on it. "The Figure a Poem Makes" begins with: "Abstraction is an old story with the philosophers, but it has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day." --A stab at people such as T.S. Eliot, who were pretty into abstraction and having unclear meanings. Frost's poetry is usually pretty clear and accesible in its meaning, which is fitting for an American Modern. Eliot is not as clear, which is also fitting of his High Modern-ness. (I am so going to take a class on Modernism. It's fun.)

Eliot ends his poem "Hollow Men" with:

For Thine is the Kingdom
For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

See what I mean about the abstraction? Frost can be fairly well interpreted with one reading, this takes more work. The reference to the Lord's Prayer is a side note to the text of the poem itself. The fragmented and incomplete segments of it that follow say, unlike Frost, that maybe there isn't any "momentary stay against the confusion" at all. The thought is never completed, the clarity never found. That unlike those bits of wisdom that Frost says a poem is to convey at the end (and fairly clearly, too), maybe things just happen because they do. The end of the world is trivialized and made into some thing that sound's like a song children sing as they hop and skip about. (I know I am ignoring the wartime implications and context of this poem but it doesnt really fit into my discussion. It is an important application though. I also know I am not fully fleshing out my ideas, but this is my blog not a classroom!)

Often Eliot and Frost are put into opposing camps, a sort of scholar vs. artist mentality. I think they are more reconcilable though.

Sometimes when reading poetry, (or just as I go through life) I do exactly as Frost says and get knowledge "
cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books." He relates it to walking through a field and then noticing all the burrs one picks up along the way. I think there is value in that. We are allowed to informally explore ourselves and learn about life, no pressures.

But I dont think we can always learn like a piece of ice that is just melting randomly on a hot stove.

There is also great value in learning through "conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic," or the scholarly approach. It might not be as delightful to learn this way, which is more regimented. It forces us to evaluate things in a different way and lets people criticize our work and look for holes in it, which in turn makes us be more careful. This way, we can be sure our ideas have merit and are supportable.

Why do people feel the need to join one side or the other? Why cant we learn both ways? I know sometimes I come upon an idea the Frost-y way, and then take a deeper look at it the Eliot way. Sure, some of our works can unfold in a surprising and almost revelatory way, but some must also be reasoned through.

Well, there it is. I'm off to play on a friday night!


  1. Balance is good. Some things require Frost, others Eliot. But in defense of Eliot, even he was more balanced than perhaps some give him credit for. Reserved, yes, abstract, often yes, but a very shrewd and childlike sense of humor too. Who else could have written Prufrock and Waste Land and also Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats? Plus he was a businessman all his life as well as a scholar and poet. In the room the women come and go, talking of positive cash flow . . .

  2. I knew it would be you who commented on this, Alan. :) It doesn't talk about being gay so I wonder if some of my readership will even read the whole thing. But whatev.

    I agree with what you said, and I hope I didn't give the impression that I disagree with Eliot or anything. (You said "in defense") In fact, even though I don't feel the need to plant myself in either camp, I lean toward Eliot's style overall. Being a university student, I suppose it is more applicable to my life overall.

    Speaking of being more balanced than some give him credit for--I extend that to Prufrock. Having read it for several classes so far, people always seem to think that he is creepy and that they wouldn't like him if they met him. I disagree. Everyone does and thinks ridiculous things when they are infatuated or in love, and all those people in my classes who say he is a creeper is not acknowledging that side in themselves! He is just a poor man who is very reserved and shy trying to figure out what to do with these feelings he is having.

    I read some story once about Robert Frost's grading styles in his classrooms. He was not a fan of grading at all, and would do crazy things with grades, such as give people a grade on the first day of class and then try to convince him to change it through the rest of the semester. Or having everyone on the last day write down what they learned and base grades of that. One person wrote that they "didn't learn a dammed thing" and he gave them a B for misspelling "damned." I don't think I would like that at all.

  3. LOL at expecting I'd be the one to comment. You know me too well Tommy! But dangle T.S. Eliot in front of me and it's like catnip to one of his cats, I just can't resist. And if the rest of your fans don't read it because it's about literature, their loss. They don't know what they're missing.

    Agree with you about Prufrock. An interesting fellow. The way Eliot writes, I always feel like I'm looking at Prufrock through thick shutters only halfway open, seeing only half of him at any given time. One of the reasons he's so interesting I guess. And don't you think my spin on the Prufrock quote was positively inspired?

    I encountered Eliot before college but he was a bit demanding. But once I took a second look as part of my major program, I was totally hooked. Prufrock, Waste Land, Four Quartets, Choruses from The Rock, Murder in the Cathedral, I love 'em all. Section V (the last part) of Little Gidding is almost like scripture to me in the depth of its insight and the beauty of its imagery. Plus, as a "closet Anglican" (as one of my buds here calls me) I like how Eliot gradually moved from fashionable American agnosticism to committed Anglicanism and taking British citizenship. (I'm going to church at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco Sunday morning, should be great music)

    Frost was definitely 100% American by contrast. I don't think I would have liked the head games with grades either. But I concur with him on the spelling error! LOL.

    As long as you want to talk about Eliot, I'll talk back.