April 1, 2008
National Poetry Month, and my quest for the month
I decided I wanted to post (part of) T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to kick off National Poetry Month, less because I love the poem (I don’t, particularly, though it has a great opening line) than because it’s referenced in the FAQ for the month at Poets. org: “T. S. Eliot wrote, ‘April is the cruelest month.’ It is our hope that National Poetry Month lessens that effect.”
I’m not a big Eliot fan, really. (I’m not nearly as anti-Eliot as Evil Bender, though, who this morning referred to Eliot as a “reactionary fuck.”) I love “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I appreciate some of the thoughts Eliot had on writing, but much of his personal life and behavior troubles me, from his treatment of his first wife to his anti-Semitism. As I poked around the internet looking for more information about the latter, I came across a reference to Emanuel Litvinoff and his poem “To T.S. Eliot.” He tells the story of the poem in this Museum of London interview:
Some years later I had written a poem, I’d read T.S. Eliot’s ‘Selected Poems’ which was published in 1948 by Penguin. I got hold of this and I read these poems and it included some of the worse anti-Semitic poems he had written in the ’20s, now this had been selected by him and published by Penguin after Auschwitz. And I thought okay, in the 1920s goodness knows there was so much anti-Semitism in English literature okay, and he’s a wonderful poet Eliot, I could absolutely forgive him for that, for doing it in the 1920s. But to choose them as his selected poems and publish them after 1945, after Auschwitz, was an appalling thing for him to do. Shocking and absolutely condemned him utterly. And I wrote a poem to T.S. Eliot chiding him about this thing.
And it had not then been published when the Contemporary Library, the Contemporary Arts were having the first poetry platform. It had not long been put in existence, I think this was about 1951 maybe or something like that, and they wrote and asked me to come and read. And I went along there with two, I had two poems to read, one was a poem I can’t remember and the other was this poem to T.S. Eliot. I arrived there and there were all my literary friends from Hampstead there and there was Dannie Abse, there was Rudy Nassar, there was Bernice Rubens, there were famous people like that, and it was absolutely packed and in the Chair was Herbert Read, who was by now Sir Herbert Read. Although he was an anarchist he had allowed himself to be knighted fairly recently. Now when I was called to read my poems, I had read the first one which was absolutely innocuous and I had just announced the title of the second one ‘To T.S. Eliot’ and Herbert Read said ‘oh good Tom has just come in’. Eliot apparently had arrived with an entourage and I felt dreadful about reading it, I felt very, very nervous and I thought to myself, well look the poem is entitled to be read and I read it with a trembling voice that gave it an extraordinary power. In some ways it’s a fairly devastating poem, it begins something like
‘Eminence becomes you,
Now when the rock is struck,
Your young sardonic voice which floats on beauty’- no –
‘Which broke on beauty,
Floats amid incest,
As though a God utters from Russell Square
High in the solemn cathedral of the air,
His holy octaves to a million radios,
I am not one accepted in your parish,
Witstein is my relative and I share the
Proterozoic slime of Shylock’
and so on and so forth.
There was an absolute shocked silence. When I finished reading it Herbert Read said to me ‘if I had known that you were going to read such a poem I would never have allowed it’ and I thought ‘eh and you’re an anarchist?’ Then hell broke loose and I remember particularly Stephen Spender getting up and saying ‘as a poet as Jewish as Litvinoff, I’m outraged by this unwanted, undeserved attack on my friend T.S. Eliot’ and so on and so forth.
I was able to find two excerpts of the poem online. One, from the blog 3 Quarks Daily, picks up just before Litvinoff finishes in the interview:
I am not one accepted in your parish,
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the order of the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.
The other, from Wikipedia, seems to be from the end:
‘So shall I say it is not eminence chills
but the snigger from behind the covers of history,
the sly words and the cold heart
and footprints made with blood upon a continent?
Let your words
tread lightly on this earth of Europe
lest my people’s bones protest.’
I was impressed by those excerpts, and set about trying to find the whole poem. The internet wasn’t much help beyond what I’d already found. The collection in which the poem was published isn’t at the school library, or at the public library… and it’s out of print. And the lowest price I can find for a used copy is $35, which is too rich for my blood at the moment.
Of course, I’m stubborn, so now it’s on. I’m on a quest. The next step is interlibrary loan. I will post that poem during Poetry Month. Oh yes. I will.