Sunday, October 11, 2009

T.S. Eliot, Mole; Bob Dylan, Badger

Courtesy of the 18,000 listeners who voted, the BBC recently announced poll results showing T.S. Eliot, quirky Missourian turned quintessential Englishman, as the most popular poet in Britain--"a serious, philosophical poet full of classical elusions" was the serendipitous, e-literate description issued in a press statement.

Eliot beat out John Donne, Wilfred Owen, a Rastararian named Bernard Zephaniah, even Keats and Yeats. Masters as varied as Milton, Wordsworth, and Robbie Burns finished out of the running, and 20th Century greats W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin, Dylan Thomas and Seamus Heaney, even the troubled duo of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (the other American transplant), were simply left standing at the gate. Seems that BBC listeners, like Eliot's familiar bowler, prefer to be old hat!

Meanwhile a separate news note elsewhere reminded me that the second Dylan (born Zimmerman actually) had an Eliot connection: Bob's "Desolation Row" (and possibly bits of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands") reads like a folk-rock version of Eliot's masterpiece "The Waste Land," and Dylan's lyrics actually namecheck Eliot and Ezra Pound ("Il miglior fabbro," as T.S. wrote in his thanks to Pound for editing) while moving through a somewhat French-surreal landscape in general.

Bob even had his own religious conversion period sort of mirroring Eliot's embrace of the episcopal High Church of England, but songs like "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Man Gave Names to All the Animals" are a poor match for Eliot's haunting religious poems ("Journey of the Magi," Ash Wednesday, and portions of Four Quartets). Luckily Dylan recovered his senses and his own variable Muse in time (particularly from his Oh Mercy album on), while Eliot just waffled on into old age, his anti-Semitism, mistreatment of women, and learned snobbery all sadly intact.

As a pop culture kid my allegiance definitely rested with Dylan, but decades ago when I was also a practicing poet--I never got past the "just practicing" stage--a quasi-vanity press solicited my participation in a poets' tribute to Eliot, an anthology of celebratory pieces to be published in 1988 "On the Centennial of His Birth." (Those capital letters suggest the near-religious veneration involved.)

Well, I was a confirmed "Modernist" myself donkey's years back (in grad school), so I had no trouble generating some silly verses bearing that title, which the compilers were willing to include in their book--and I am about to revive the wee beastie here.

(Think of this thankfully brief episode as a placeholder while I ponder what might be important enough to write about next.)


Not molasses, but treacle:
that's your path through earth.
You sheath your paws and glide
beneath tumulus. You burrow older,
old barrow-hoarder, digging up the past.
No gopher, you direct silence,
pictures moving underground,
scene by scene connecting our inner worlds.
Feeding on your nerves, you snout it new,
a timid observer no longer:
fabricator now, busy shoveling humus,
turning compost, rearranging
grubs and dull roots,
drab fragments of existence.
With radiant star and umbrella of loam
you suit yourself complete.
Near-blind dreamer, unseer,
I think of you as the spirit
that underlies: caved-in: tunneling
in your root-room: hoping
to rise to light again in time
to mark the sun going down the world,
its usual easy commerce coming on darkness--
all that you long imagined
now achieved: rendered hole.

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