Thursday, September 4, 2014

Two More Rivals

It is unclear who the rival was in Sylvia Plath's poem, in my last entry before this one. On this occasion there is no doubt - both poets name him in their title; and to name a rival in one's title is to honour him, however much one may then disparage him inside the text. Two very different rivalries, engendering two very different forms of disparagement, reflecting two very different T.S. Eliots. The first is Robert Lowell's, his title a mere plaque:


Caught between two streams of traffic, in the gloom
of Memorial Hall and Harvard’s war-dead… And he:
“Don’t you loathe to be compared with your relatives?
I do. I’ve just found two of mine reviewed by Poe.
He wiped the floor with them… and I was delighted.”
Then on with warden’s pace across the Yard,
talking of Pound, “It’s balls to say he only
pretends to be Ezra… He’s better though. This year,
he no longer wants to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem.
Yes, he’s better. ‘You speak,’ he said, when he’d talked two hours.
By then I had absolutely nothing to say.’
Ah Tom, one muse, one music, had one your luck –
lost in the dark night of the brilliant talkers,
humor and honor from the everlasting dross!

Or maybe it isn't a poem at all, but a mere diary entry. There is room for both, in what we call literature for want of a more precise term. In this book I have included riddles, limericks, tankas, hymns and psalms, prose-poems, poetic-prose, blank verse, music hall, fable, doggerel… there has, surely, to be room for every permutation of this human language, including spume and cruor; and quite a few more permutations that we haven't thought up yet.

Great poets – to return to matters more specifically in hand – great poets on other great poets are always worth the read. Some are bitchy, some idolatrous, some sycophantic, some so deeply envious that they cannot even hate effectively. Eliot himself was a prize feline when it came to other writers, claw-scratching or fur-rubbing in equal measures. Emanuel Litvinoff's response to Eliot (below) was anguished and resentful, but ultimately admiring. Lowell is less kind, picking out the surface moles where Litvinoff identified the psychic scars. There is condescension too, in the "Ah, Tom", and a touch of jealousy over what Eliot would never have considered luck; but in the end it is Eliot's profound snobbery and not the quality of his poetry that Lowell derides, albeit affectionately.

The mad Ezra is of course Ezra Pound, about whom Lowell also wrote in a companion-poem in the same collection, "Notebook". Lowell visited Pound at St. Elizabeth's, the psychiatric hospital in south-east Washington where Ezra was confined after the end of Hitler's War; having spent most of it making radio broadcasts for Mussolini that were overtly anti-Semitic, the US government indicted him for treason and held him in that "prison-hospital for the criminally insane". Lowell, himself a former recipient of psychiatric help (click here), was among those, including Eliot, Frost and Hemingway, who campaigned for his release (click here).

Lowell's explorations and experiments and extensions of the private into the poetic were essential to the development of the art of poetry in the 20th century. In blank verse, this poem, and also in liberated if not completely free verse, this is nevertheless a perfectly constructed sonnet.

Where Lowell's title was a plaque, Litvinoff's might be an email, only he wrote it before that method of communication was invented. But clearly addressed. This is a poem that the poet wanted its subject to read.

To T.S. Eliot

Eminence becomes you. Now when the rock is struck
your young sardonic voice which broke on beauty
floats amid incense and speaks oracles
as though a god
utters from Russell Square and condescends,
high in the solemn cathedral of the air,
his holy octaves to a million radios.

I am not one accepted in your parish.
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Stürmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.

Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the ordure on the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.

It would seem, then, yours is a voice
remote, singing another river
and the gilded wreck of princes only
for Time’s ruin. It is hard to kneel
when knees are stiff.

But London Semite Russian Pale, you will say
Heaven is not in our voices.
The accent, I confess, is merely human,
speaking of passion with a small letter
and, crying widow, mourning not the Church
but a woman staring the sexless sea
for no ship’s return,
and no fruit singing in the orchards.

Yet walking with Cohen when the sun exploded
and darkness choked our nostrils,
and the smoke drifting over Treblinka
reeked of the smouldering ashes of children,
I thought what an angry poem
you would have made of it, given the pity.

But your eye is a telescope
scanning the circuit of stars
for Good-Good and Evil-Absolute,
and, at luncheon, turns fastidiously from fleshy
noses to contemplation of the knife
twisting among the entrails of spaghetti.

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

This poem has twice played an important role of influence on my own writing, once directly, once indirectly. To recount the latter anecdote first, I was once searching for the poem in the anthology of Jewish verse where I had first discovered it, intending to use it for a teaching session on anti-Semitism, and found my eyes drawn to the poem which preceded it in the collection. I scarcely glanced, yet the opening line must have sunk in – albeit a rather trite and unpoetic line of little merit – for it resurfaced of its own accord some years later, misquoted or at least indigently remembered, as the opening line of my own "Elegy on the Death of Moses". The second anecdote is less obscure; quite simply, I copied out the poem word-for-word in the appendix to "The Flaming Sword".

Of Eliot himself I have already spoken in this collection (click here). Litvinoff was born in Whitechapel, in London's East End, in 1915, and fought in Africa and the Middle East during Hitler's – or as it must have been, in his case, Mussolini's War. Each was an outsider in a civilisation he longed to espouse, but which ultimately offered only internal exile. It may appear strange then – and yet it is entirely logical – that Litvinoff should condemn Eliot for the evil into which western culture and civilisation had collapsed, when after all Eliot had not engendered that civilisation, but merely made the same mistake as Litvinoff, which was to imagine that it existed in the reality beyond literature, and was therefore capable of espousing. 

Litvinoff clearly digs down into a very deep well of hatred in order to write this poem; and this is good, for poetry should be able to hate effectively too; and as to hatred, poetry is perhaps the least worst way of dealing with it. But there is pleasure in the hating; pleasure also in the rather obvious joke that all his heirs (myself among them) have felt obliged to play, of quoting Eliot back to himself obscurely, of making allusion to his literary allusions, of writings centos in his honour.

In the end Litvinoff's is not a poem about T.S. Eliot at all. It is the poem of a Jew scarred by the Holocaust, and looking for somebody to blame. The Nazis had been tried, and if not acquitted then given the necessary clemency of the Marshall Plan. God had declined to be subpoenaed, and his earthly representative who might have spoken against the conflagration was already a candidate for sanctification at his morning vigil on the Tiber bridge. What else was there to blame but western civilisation itself, an untenable witness, unless represented by a suitable human eminence, one chosen, whether for his own litotic anti-Semitism, or because he too bore the scar of western culture, and had learned how even such a scar could still bear fruit?

There might, too, have been a third anecdote, a third poem even, for as every young poet post-Eliot must, I too began my verse-tribute, a stony rubble where the branches could not clutch. It began, as I recall, in parodistic vein:

          If I could take my dinner with the greats,
          a cigar with Bleistein, say, or talking love with Yeats,
          or sit awhile discussing plans and tactics
          with Napoleon in a Petersburg café, or semantics
          with Wordsworth, or share a wafer with St Paul,
          or drink a toast to Spanish wine with Charles de Gaulle…

only it petered out, as the Litvinoff so often comes close to doing, in crude finger-pointing and mere diatribe. Of my notebooks for that poem little survives (and perhaps just as well): references to fear in a handful of dust and the red rock of anti-Semitism ("come out from the shadow of that red rock"); a suggestion that

          we shall engage in commerce with you
          not trading sticks and stones
          but bartering histories for histories
          eyes for eyes
          teeth for teeth
          Pound for Pound.

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