Robert Maddox-Harle & Jaydeep Sarangi In a Conversation on T. S. Eliot

(26 September 1888 – 4 January 1965)


RH: In The Four Quartets – Burnt Norton, Eliot writes about a “still point”.

At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
To me this a purely mystical insight and alludes to the Bindu or “point of divinity”, omnipresent in India culture. Do you think Eliot's engagement with the Indian spiritual systems influenced this profound poem?

J.S.: Thank you, Rob!
 Interesting question! Eliot studied Indian Philosophy and Sanskrit at Harvard. He observed Indian spiritual systems and made that as codified reference in his poems. Above lines indicate towards his deep engagement with Indian spiritual culture. It’s yogic meditation where the mind concentrates on a particular point. The ‘still point’, of course, is the symbol of the Logos. To experience the sublime , the 'still point', is to transcend the immediate ; it is to give up mundane desire and restlessness .It connects Time past with Time future. Indian scriptures talk about it elaborately. India is rich with this transcendental philosophy and the philosophy of nirbikalpa sadhana. Renunciation of body for the quest of the ‘living soul’ has been manifested in these lines.

RH: Eliot was born in the USA and moved to the UK, a significant number of his works involve dichotomies – spiritual/material, life/death, growth/decay and so on. I wonder if his geographical relocation influenced his literature and to what extent? Or could you suggest other factors?

J.S.: Eliot embraced ideas from different sources. Geographical shifting may be a reasons among many reasons to portray dichotomies – spiritual/material, life/death, growth/decay and so on effectively. He was poet for all continents. In 1927, Eliot became a British citizen and in the same time entered the Anglican Church. He followed his strong belief that poetry should aim at a representation of the complexities, anxieties and movements of modern civilization in language and structure that such representation necessarily lead to obscure poetry. His poems present before us the glaring problems of a society and he has a typical style of language for his thoughts. There is a touch of genius in all his works. Eliot’s vast knowledge about the orient and its philosophy helped him in many ways. For me, he was a scholar-poet!

RH: To fully appreciate many of Eliot's poetic works one needs a basic understanding of esoteric matters, such as astrology, tarot and spiritualism.
In The Burial of the Dead Eliot writes,

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man.

Would you agree with my statement?

J.S.: Yes! Reading Eliot demands serious attention and its always a cerebral exercise. He deals with metaphysical subjects which are not easy for a common reader. His poems are replete with intertextual references and allusions. Some of his ideas are ontological. He may be a shock for a casual reader. But his thoughts are profound and deeply rooted in baggage of experiences and insights. Eliot’s poem, like the anthropological texts, draws on several sources. Eliot provided meticulous footnotes with the publication of The Waste Land in book form. All are important inputs to read the poem contextually. I too find my students stumbling to comprehend Eliot’s poems properly. Once someone understands him its a reading delight! He is a very special artist!

RH: Eliot at times was a fierce critic, his “A Note on the Verse of John Milton” is scathing of Milton and goes so far as to say that, “Milton did damage to the English language from which it has not wholly recovered.” Could you comment on this and do you agree with his critique of Milton?

J.S.: T.S.Eliot is also synonymous with a stalwart critic. He doesn’t make things airy.His logic is always strong and sharp. Undoubtedly Milton is a classical poet and his ‘Paradise Lost’ is an epic for generations. But his language is , of course, full of allusions and not the language of the common people. Epic similes are too long and specialised scholars can find engaging. Eliot has a point. Given an opportunity a student will go for Eliot than Milton for understandable reasons.

RH: It has been argued that The Wasteland produces an ideology as well as being produced by one. Cultures collapse, but culture survives. He wrote this masterpiece hot on the heels of WWI. How much do you think this destruction of cultures by war influenced Eliot in this poem?

J.S.: T.S. Eliot probably worked on The Waste Land for several years preceding its first publication in 1922. The Wasteland is often been considered as an elegy on collapse of a cultures and traditions: ‘Earth in forgetful snow.’ The poem provides almost a mimetic account of life and society in the confusing world of the first part of the twentieth century. WWI was an epoch making event in the history of mankind. I’m sure Eliot conceived his ideas from the horrific experiences of WWI and its after affects. Memorials were erected in thousands of villages and towns in different shores.Eliot’s style and cadence represent his thoughts: a hollow man in the wasteland! It is also interesting to note that the poem’s dedication indicates, Eliot received a great deal of guidance from Ezra Pound.
Eliot wrote both free verse and rhyming verse, there is a wonderful “musicality” in his rhyming work such as in Sweeney Among The Nightingales. Good free verse is not like a newspaper article but exhibits a certain cadence. Do you think he retains a musicality in his free verse?

RH:Some critics of Eliot have noted fairly strong anti-Semitism in his writings. In Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar for example;
The Rats are underneath the piles.
The Jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs. The boatman smiles,

Do you think this criticism is valid, keeping in mind Eliot's Catholicism and then high Anglicanism?

J.S.: Hostility toward Jews dates back to ancient times, perhaps to the beginning of Jewish history. It is a separate chapter. T. S. Eliot's anti-Semitism is a what a set of critics are engaged with. There may be a personal stand by the poet on Catholicism. For me personally, Eliot is known for his universal appeal. His contribution as a poet, dramatist and critic is beyond doubt. He ushered modernism in poetry.I enjoy his poems for its artistic aestheticism and a trendsetter in poetic style and cadence.

RH:The Four Quartets is considered inspired partly by the four classical elements relevant to many cultures – Chinese, Indian, Greek - these are also important in alchemy and astrology. To what extent do you think these elements influenced his poetic masterpiece?

J.S.: Eliot was a learned man and he was open for various cultures. There is fascinating alchemy of classical elements relevant to many cultures – Chinese, Indian, Greek . W.B. Yeats used more local myths and topical references than classical legends and myths. Eliot’s mastery was on fusing several classical aspects with intertextual references in a poetic corpus. The rhyme scheme of his poems is irregular but engaging. For example, “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock ” is a carefully structured amalgamation of different poetic forms. Prufrock’s rigorous return to the “women [who] come and go / Talking of Michelangelo” and his recurrent questionings “how should I presume?” give the poem a special tone and note. Eliot is an expert in unfolding the tortured psyche of the prototypical modern man an a society what he define as the ‘wasteland’.

RH: Please share one of your poems with us written under the influence of T.S.Eliot.

J.S.:

MY PRIDE
My words
Are expressions of pride
Which eat up my energy in daily acts
Of going there
And coming in
For unnecessary means.

When I stop
The clock ticks fast
As I lag behind the schedule.

My readings and random thoughts
Make me wild
As the cloud hovers around my neck.

You and I both walk past an old clock
When my lines move hearts.
The stone speaks for a community
And the land.

You could break me to pieces
Soluble in water
As my proud birth drags me back to grass.

I wonder if I could be part of you
Whole evolving universe
Where time piles on time,
Bones vibrate as an intuitive seer.


J.S.: T S Eliot was an essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic and "one of the twentieth century's major poets. Which aspect of Eliot influenced you most?

RH: I'd have to say his poetry. A couple of reasons for me personally. Firstly, much of Eliot's poetry defies “shop keeper's logic” as Simic would say. To me this is a characteristic of great poetry, if a poem reads exactly like a newspaper article it's a failure. It has to have some magic and mystery! Secondly, his involvement with esoteric matters, religions and occultism parallels my own interests which inspired some of my past sculptures and present poems.

J.S.: "The Waste Land" is notable for its seemingly disjointed structure...What do you say?

RH: Yes the work does appear disjointed but I think this adds to the “angst” that is part of Eliot's intention. The poem is monumental with references to so many traditions, cultures, belief systems and ideologies, and it moves from one voice to another without clearly alerting the reader as to why. The disjointedness reflects what Eliot perceived to be the state of the world – not a smooth transition from one period to another as in ancient cultures but abrupt meaningless change at all levels - war/peace, spiritual values eroded. The aftermath of WWI influenced many aspects of society and culture such as creation of Surrealism and literary works like The Wasteland.

J.S.: There is a famous phrases are "April is the cruellest month". What is the essence of this phrase? Why is it so popular?

RH: In the northern hemisphere April is mid-spring, a glorious time of new growth, uplifted spirits and so on. How can it be the cruellest month? Here Eliot has created an enigma on the surface, perhaps that is why it is so popular it defies logic and it is the first line of the whole poem. But he's trying to show I believe, in a depressing negative way that spring only lasts for a temptingly short period. He is not looking at the four seasons (as he does in the Four Quartets) as a natural progression of life such as indigenous people do. He's seeing spring as false hope for a wonderful future without any more winters. As a metaphor for the future of humankind it means such hope is misplaced.

J.S.: When did you first read Eliot?

RH: Formally at university when studying literature, myth and ideology. Previously when I was involved with the Theosophical Society because of Eliot's connection with occultism and esoteric matters – but this was only a brief encounter.

J.S.: Are you familiar with mantra in the Sanskrit language "Shantih shantih shantih"?

RH: Not in any great depth but I do understand it means Peace, Peace, Peace and when it is OM (Aum) Shantih, shantih, shantih it is known as the Peace Mantra, which opens and closes formal prayer in Hinduism. Perhaps this is why Eliot closes The Wasteland with it, as a formal closure.

J.S.: Why do you read Eliot in this age of Facebook?

RH: Because the age of Facebook is vacuous and superficial and is fast losing any depth and passion for considered understanding and for quiet contemplation. Facebook and the Internet despite their positive aspects, aids the “dumbing down” process of society overall. The geniuses (to hell with Derrida's opinion to the contrary) were universal, drawing on the great traditions and wisdom of the ages to further our understanding of the universe. Eliot knew the difference between a noun and a verb, many Facebook and iPhone double-thumb-texting clones do not!

J.S.: Could you please talk about some of Eliot’s stereotype images and symbols?
RH; Eliot used so many symbols it's hard to think of the most prominent ones - perhaps, his image and stereotype of Jews, in an anti-Semitic manner, has drawn much attention. His own situation as a metic (foreigner) is stereotypical and occurs in his writings quite frequently. Religious symbols and particularly esoteric ones such as the tarot card and their symbolic references are often used. Sunlight, as shafts of light to illuminate from above is a recurring image, perhaps a theological reference - darkness versus light? Birds are messengers for Eliot again perhaps bringing theological messages. Then there is his Still Point, which we've discussed. The seasons and four elements are important as symbols. Images of Christ and in quite a deep way images that accentuate the phenomena of life and death in a universal not just personal manner.

J.S.: You are also a poet and a critic . Did Eliot ever influence you as a poet?

RH: Eliot's work had a slight influence in two respects. Firstly, his free verse such as is in The Wasteland helped me break free from the English/Australian traditional standard of rhyming iambic pentameter style poetry. A bit like, if it's OK for Eliot then it's OK for me. Do you know there are still some old dinosaurs that say, “If it doesn't rhyme it's not poetry! Imagine that? Secondly, there may have been a subconscious influence in subject matter. I refer to religion, spiritual matters and the occult quite often in my work. As a recent critic noted in a review of my work, “The poet's objection – almost theological, to this new stage of evolution is obvious from this poem [False Narratives] and his acute desperation can be detected in captilization of words and even in the rhyming pattern of the poem.” (Mukerjee, Rupkatha Journal, 2013)

Jaydeep Sarangi
J.S.: Do you see any contemporary Australian writer who writes in the same vein with Eliot?
RH: Hard question, I think Eliot was pretty much unique – but in subject matter perhaps myself (a little), then David Hallett, Christine Strelan and in Eliot's rhyming poems Peter Nicholson.

J.S: Please share one of your poems with us written under the influence of T.S.Eliot.

RH:

The Guillotine
Our global village waits
numb with disbelief
as the invisible decision rises
hovering high above humanity;
the particles of death honed
sharper than any rapier or razor.
The Rainbow sails as David,
across a dancing darting ocean
at peace with dawn and dolphin
to meet Goliath's genocidal guillotine.
Nurses, scientists, farmers chant
Chernobyl: Chernobyl: Chernobyl:
Vacant homes on abandoned farms
stare back at empty hospitals;
records, medical notes, paper bits
stained by blood red rain
lie in the strange ashen dust.
And our global village cries.
They speak in constructions of liberty
but the syntax is one of dire deception
their empty sentences
sentence every living organism
and echo across the sinking vortex
of an earlier Rainbow vision.
And we are silenced by superiority,
by the rhetoric of arrogance
and impenetrable imperialism.
And our global village screams,
Stop! Stop!

Rob Harle
Robert Maddox-Harle (aka Rob Harle) is a writer, artist, photographer and reviewer. Writing work includes poetry, short fiction stories, academic essays and reviews of scholarly books and papers. His work is published in journals, anthologies, online reviews, books and he has three volumes of his own poetry published – Scratches & Deeper Wounds (1996) and Mechanisms of Desire (2012), Winds of Infinity (2016). Recent poetry has been published in Rupkatha Journal (Kolkata), Nimbin Good Times (Nimbin), Beyond The Rainbow (Nimbin), Numerous specific anthologies, Indo-Australian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (2013) and World Poetry Year Book (2014), Setu Journal (monthly), Asian Signature (2013). He is currently a member of the: Leonardo Review Panel: Manuscript Reviewer for Leonardo Journal & Journal of Virtual World Research; Member of Editorial Board of numerous international literature journals, and Australian – NZ editor for Setu Journal. Artwork, Publications, Reviews and selected writings are available from his website: https://www.maddoxharle.com

Jaydeep Sarangi is a bilingual poet, editor, translator and academic with significant publications in different renowned journals and magazines along with forty three books. At present, he is Principal and Professor of English at New Alipore College, Kolkata 


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