Writing an appointment in my calendar, I see in small print in one of the boxes that T.S.Eliot was born in 1888 on this day in September. I feel a small shock of surprise, for he was alive when I was in college, and yet the calendar reminds me he was born in the Victorian era. And then I remember that I am 68, probably as old now as he was when he came to my college to read.
For the next couple of hours I walk around the house, muttering to myself, "Let us go then, you and I..." and "like a patient, etherized upon a table." In so many ways those lines open, at least for me, the modern era in poetry--the invitation to visit a life which has failed, so different from the poets of a generation earlier, who still hoped, still struggled with large views. And the famous opening image, grotesque and smelling of death. A quick calculation and I realize Eliot came to this voice at the time of the First World War. No wonder...
Suddenly I remember when I gave Sam for his birthday the recording of T.S.Eliot reading from Prufrock and Other Observations. I was perhaps 15--no, younger, because he and my mother had already separated by the time I was 15. Probably I was 13, when we were living in Cambridge and he was in the graduate school of English at Harvard.
I suspect it was my mother who implanted the idea that I give my stepfather a birthday present. She knew that we didn't get along, and that a gift from me, especially one which showed I recognized his tastes, would help smooth things over, might establish us in an adult relationship, when we had so painfully failed as father and son.
I was excited to find the record. It was the beginning of that era in the 1950s when poets recorded their work on long-playing discs. Dylan Thomas was the most famous, and I was proud of the fact that I avoided the popular choice, knowing that for my stepfather and his friends, Thomas was not a poet in the same exalted rank as Eliot.
I stood in front of Sam as he unwrapped my present, eager for his praise. His face twisted as he looked at the record jacket, and he said, "I was hoping it would be the Four Quartets." I felt humiliated, felt that I was supposed to know that Prufrock was passe, that the Four Quartets was the correct thing. Yet, how could I know? I hadn't read Eliot, I had only heard the name around the table when Sam and his friends discussed literature. My face burned. "Well, thank you anyway," he added, dimly aware from my mother's stunned silence that he had hurt me. I turned away, determined that I would not try again to reach out.
So we live in dreams of what might be, fantasies of love that could embrace us. "Till human voices wake us, and we drown."
Michael Wright lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, raises heirloom apples and throws pots. His work has appeared in diverse publications, most recently in Writers on the Edge and The Sigurd Journal.
Beautiful job, Michael. What a prig that guy was!
I feel both sides: the child trying to reach out and the adult not knowing til it's too late how an action is felt by another. Thanks, Michael.
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