“Poor Tom”?!?!?!? Good grief, not again….

I’ve had the opportunity to read a few of the efforts by Peter Ackroyd, and on our most recent tour I took his biography of T.S. Eliot with me.  This is the third of his biographies of poets that I have read.  I started with his illustrated work on Ezra Pound before lifting his heavy volume on the life of William Blake.  I have also read his fictitious The Fall of Troy and The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein. The last work was rather crap, containing some scant patches of decent writing which were ultimately destroyed by his use of THE LAMEST PLOT DEVICE IN THE HISTORY OF LITERATURE.  Barring that misstep, I feel safe in my personal estimation of him as a writer of considerable talent, and his biographies reflect that.  They are interesting and full of genuine scholarship.  He has done his homework, and from what I can tell these are works born of genuine love and admiration.

There’s just this thing…..

In the course of reading about these poets I have somehow failed to gain any understanding of them, and for once I’m not sure it’s entirely my fault.  Fair enough regarding the work on Ezra Pound, because it was a fairly skimpy volume that was supposed to serve as an overview and introduction to the man, and I could readily see that and accepted it as such.  But his works on Blake and Eliot have left me strangely unsatisfied and unfulfilled, rather like eating a large meal and still feeling hungry even though you couldn’t possibly eat another bite.

He has a tendency to move very, very fast in covering the events that constitute, you know, life, and rather than stop and smell the roses he blazes ahead, always onwards and upwards.  I suppose it could be a matter of style and taste, as perhaps he has made a conscientious effort to avoid making any inferences that can’t be proven or validated by Eliot himself.  In this regard, he almost writes as if he were Eliot’s autobiographer, which is an entirely different thing altogether.

By the time we raced though his youth and reached the end of his college years it wasn’t even page 50, and it continued at that same hurried pace until we reached his death.  I did have a chuckle when Ackroyd included the remark that during one of his many, many, many periods of intense mental anguish Eliot’s friends had taken to referring to him as “Poor Tom”.  The same expression reported by the same author, but used for two different poets for two entirely different reasons.  While William Blake was a tireless worker who was rather hapless and unlucky with his financial affairs (thus “Poor Blake“), T.S. Eliot was a creature of his nervous disposition, and “Poor Tom” was a man of deep depression and despair.  I get the impression that his friends and associates often wanted to shake him and say “snap out of it!”.  It was rather nice to find out that he did find peace and love in his later years.

I have been giving careful thought to my criticism of this volume on Eliot, of perhaps being guilty of wanting to know more than the poet intended me to?  Am I just like someone who can’t understand a song unless they know the story and explanation?  I’ve always loathed that and found it to be a sign of mental laziness.  After all, what good is reading a poem if you need someone to explain it?  It rather defeats the purpose of writing it in the first place, doesn’t it?

I decided that no, my desires haven’t crossed any lines of artistic cheating, not yet anyay.  It’s not like I wanted to read his journals like some sort of sniffing detective, trying to figure out what went where and what it signifies.  I simply wanted a better story, and if someone is in a position to illuminate us on an individual then I wish they had done so.  I do understand that biographers went through a very “Freudian” phase, making claims and inferences that couldn’t possibly be true, and this has avoided that pitfall in a very noble manner.  Maybe I am confusing biographical scholarship with poetic criticism, and my desire to combine the two is misplaced.  Maybe.  All I know is that I don’t feel like I got the whole story, or if I did then a lot of insignificant but interesting details were left out.  Balls to that.

After finishing the book, I went straight for my collections of Eliot, and was rather annoyed that my copy of Murder in the Cathedral has gone missing, which is a shame because I never read it and there is zero chance in finding it in our local library.  Trust me, they don’t even have a copy of A Streetcar Named Desire.  I did however, find my copy of The Waste Land & Other Poems as well as Four Quartets.  I won’t even begin to pretend that I can properly sink my teeth into The Waste Land, but I am very fond his Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I have no idea what Eliot’s voice sounded like, but I keep repeating the opening lines of “Let us go then, you and I” in my head, in an unknown voice which is rich and wise with the faintest trace of rasp.

I remember once reading that Eliot was considered part of the “Elliptical School”, a description and grouping which he detested, and I must say that after a closer reading he was absolutely right to abhor such a simplistic and incorrect term.  Where he was initially found obtuse and deceptively obscure I have come to regard his works as being the first examples of another evolution of poetry.  I went from thinking of his works as clinical and cold to discovering a lyrical beauty and simplicity that was there all along.  It is the poetry of a careful, considered mind, and the tricks & traps I had imagined dissolved into thin air.  Desire, ache, and longing are all there, but in a radically understated manner.  Under-spoken does not mean un-meant.  His Four Quartets are a perfect example of this, especially my favourite, “Burnt Norton”.

I felt like I gained this new understanding not from reading his biography, which offered no insights whatsoever, but from simply reading his works over and over again, and letting his “voice” come through.

Let us go then, you and I….


This post is a tad overdue, by my own reckoning, but there is a good explanation: I haven’t felt like writing anything.  The reason I haven’t felt like writing anything is because I’ve been lying on the couch for the past week nursing a face full of bruises and swollen eye sockets thanks to being jumped by some thug last Friday night.  But, today is the day that I shake all of that off.   I’m supposed to be on vacation, damnit!

So, I went for a surf for the first time since I got slugged, and after some very real and tangible trepidation I found that I did not indeed die upon making contact with the water.  I’m not sure what I was scared of, after all, it’s only water and the waves were nothing to worry about.  I’ve done far more dumb and dangerous things without much concern, but there it was, simultaneously sitting in the pit of my stomach and whispering in my ear: fear.

I went, I caught, I stood up, I lived, it was the right thing to do.  The cops have found the titan who beat the tar out of me and with any luck I’ll be able to collect $100 worth of compensation which I can then blow on losing lottery tickets.

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