Instead of bemoaning or espousing what the internet has done to poetry (though it’s a real subject), let’s reapproach literary history, keeping in mind what has been foregrounded – made unignorable – by the internet. Why, on revisiting ‘The Waste Land’ in 2022, the hundredth anniversary of its publication, do I hear Batman’s Joker, or one of those terminally online males obsessed with him: a would-be-spectacular, self-promotingly ominous provocateur?

The young Eliot had a good deal of simple old St. Louis brashness; half the time, when the impressionable English were saying how wonderfully courageous and original he was to come out with some crashingly reactionary remark, he was just saying what any decent man would say back home in St. Louis – if he was well heeled and had a bit of culture. (For example, such a man would think the English policy towards the lower races dangerously permissive.)

William Empson

Instead of bemoaning or espousing what the internet has done to poetry (though it’s a real subject), let’s reapproach literary history, keeping in mind what has been foregrounded – made unignorable – by the internet. Why, on revisiting ‘The Waste Land’ in 2022, the hundredth anniversary of its publication, do I hear Batman’s Joker, or one of those terminally online males obsessed with him: a would-be-spectacular, self-promotingly ominous provocateur?

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Traditionally, the poem’s persona is considered prophetic (Eliot felt ‘prophet’ an ‘odious’ word, but necessary to poetry). On revisiting ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in my old Faber edition – whose strong brown cover, reminding me of my own skin, has faded over the years, the spine’s now outright greenish – I find the line ‘I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter’ annotated near-illegibly, in tachycardic biro-scrawl: the poet’s diminished role in modernity? It’s what I was taught at university. But why should Prufrock want to be a prophet? Why was this such a temptation for Eliot?

Harold Bloom called Geoffrey Hill – influenced by Eliot and positioned by some as his successor – ‘the central poet-prophet of our augmenting darkness’, who ‘inherits the authority of the visionaries from Dante and Blake on to D.H. Lawrence.’ Yet, as Adam Zagajewski reminds us, ‘Who has once met / irony will burst into laughter / during the prophet’s lecture.’ There is no such thing as a prophet. Why pretend otherwise? We speak of online coteries, like the QAnons, separating from reality into echo-chambers sealed against dissent. But the fact that Bloom could make his claim without someone within earshot dissolving in giggles suggests that literati behave in the same way. We’ve constructed creative and critical spaces where absurdly overweening utterances aren’t laughed at but taken seriously, mostly by white men desperate to take themselves super-seriously, while play-acting like children at being wizards or superheroes or prophets with outrageous powers. This is cosplay politics, literary culture reduced to a machine for reproducing self-importance.

William Empson observes in ‘The Waste Land’ ‘a touch of the craving to scold […] with its assumption that the poet is nobler and purer than anything he contemplates.’ I’m curious about a certain personality-type, with which the younger Eliot’s presentation of himself, in person and on the page, seems to tally: the sort who can’t feel safe without pursuing – as the psychoanalyst Karen Horney puts it – the neurotic quest ‘to lift himself above others’. I wonder at how the world of poetry has become designed to enable this person and exclude others.

Denying the ‘terrible slander’ that his poetry is anti-Semitic (it is, in parts), Eliot told a confidante: ‘they do not know, as you and I do, that, in the eyes of the Church, to be antisemitic is a sin’. A characteristic move to a position of tendentious superiority. Did his vaunted theory of impersonality function as a suit of armour? Marina van Zuylen examines the ‘monomania’ of writers whose ‘deep fear of immediacy, of reciprocity’ has them ‘compulsively resort to the impersonal, as though it will purge them of selfhood, evacuating whatever might place them in dialogue with others.’ But Eliot doesn’t converse, he sneers. He uses religion (including Eastern scripture that, to this Hindu reader, he doesn’t seem to fully understand) to one-up his opponents. This doesn’t, I repeat, make him a prophet. It makes him, to draw on today’s internet parlance, an edgelord.

The edgelord provokes with opinions of algorithm-exploiting vehemence. He harbinges, hyperbolises. His ‘atavistic righteous indignation’ – to borrow Stephen Spender’s phrase for Eliot’s viciously reductive ‘thumbnail sketches’ of ‘cosmopolitans’ – operates as a cover for his spleen. His avatars include the troll, the Twitter mob-lord, the keyboard warrior. (Critiquing his elegantly destructive and massively influential, early prose, Eliot confessed to ‘the braggadocio of the mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.’) Bending language toward violence, the edgelord frigs his imagination with dopamine highs to which he, and sadly others, get addicted.

Offline and online worlds continue to merge. Much punditry and politicking is little more than edgelordism. Spree shooters saturated with misogyny and racism are often edgelords radicalised online by other edgelords. Sure, this is toxic masculinity. But it matches masculinities we’ve prised, promoted, lent a high-cultural sanction. By ‘we’, I mean the literary world, whose most obvious edgelord is the hatchet-job reviewer. Laura Kipnis wrote a savvy takedown of Dale Peck’s takedowns for Slate in 2004, identifying in him the:

globalizing tone of the hypercritical, emotionally abusive parent. The language of criticism is first learned in families […]. Brutality is forever tempting for just such reasons, offering the opportunity to disavow one’s own history of vulnerability and injury while producing it in others.

To consider poets as edgelords is to reappraise the artform’s role – or lack thereof, in a wider world. Jeremy Noel-Tod draws our attention to ‘a remark too long neglected by Eliot criticism’, made by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: ‘Eliot’s high culture of an Anglo-Catholic feudal tradition [is] suspiciously close […] to the racial doctrines of those born to rule.’ There are questions to be asked about whiteness, masculinity, and minoritisation.

Eliot is paradigmatic for demanding that poetry turn ‘difficult’; he and Ezra Pound, who helped edit ‘The Waste Land’, equated the general public with the walking dead, with Pound saying that Eliot’s poem was ‘for the elect or the remnant or the select few or the superior guys, or any word that you may choose, for the small numbers of readers that it is certain to have’. The paradox of edgelord grandiosity is that he nevertheless requires something from these scorned seas of unthinking sheeple, preferably scandalised acclamation. So, the Eliot camp makes the simultaneous claim that although ‘The Waste Land’ could not be understood by ordinary people, it nevertheless dramatised in a momentous, irreplaceable, consciousness-raising way the crises of their age.

For Ted Hughes, Eliot was a shaman incarnating ‘the spiritual tragedy of his epoch’: ‘his poetry comes to stand […] at the centre of revelation in this age, and, as poetry, to stand there alone.’ But relatively few people read poetry,so how can we accept this claim? If such a dissociation of sensibility occurred at the start of the twentieth century, most moderns came to grips with it, or did not, with no help from ‘The Waste Land’.

Writers and readers of poetry overestimate the centrality of their subculture, and, when pursuing politics, grandstand and attitudinise in ways which may be not only futile but even appropriative. I’m also suggesting that today’s minoritised poetries challenge previously canonical writing, insofar as those works depend on unexplored assumptions of universality that were always unfeasible, but now undeniably so. Minorities, even minorities within minorities (this essay is written by a Sri Lankan Tamil) cannot speak but from the margins. We don’t universalise readily, if at all, but focus on dissonant particulars that may or may not be shareable. Eliot recognised new poetries as altering the classics: ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone […] the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past’. As such, poetries that accept and work with their minoritised status – that don’t stake their value on the gesture of universalisation, and even critique it – may have the effect of exposing and unmasking older styles. One way to think about this is in terms of the white male poet’s fervent denials of his own minority status, his need to position himself as a figure of cosmic savoir faire. Eliot made available for Hughes – and umpteen aspirants to the prophetic role – rhetorics for obscuring their own contextual minoritisation, as a means of converting impotence into importance.

Returning to Hill, I note his preference for the younger Eliot: ‘It was the pitch of Prufrock and Other Observations that disturbed and alienated readers; it was the tone of Four Quartets that assuaged and consoled them’. For Hill, the major poet is ‘radically, irretrievably, alienated’. What worries me about this edgelord, or – as fans of Japanese anime might put it – chūnibyō poetics, is its unwillingness to distinguish between conversation and flattery, between relationality and submission. The poet, in absolute opposition to his society, not in dialogue with it, inoculates himself against otherness and glorifies himself as an unyielding bad boy.

The work of many, many poets, even those without apparent aspirations to prophecy, could be re-examined from this perspective. D.H. Lawrence and W.S. Graham, suffering both classism and class-consciousness, extrapolated from the chips on their shoulders theories about the instincts (Lawrence) and communication (Graham) – rather than more modestly probe interpersonal struggles. Philip Larkin commences the poem ‘Love Again’ ‘wanking at half-past three’, yet by its end, ascends to a spurious metaphysics:

          say why it never worked for me.
Something to do with violence
A long way back, and wrong rewards,
And arrogant eternity.

It has nothing to do with ‘arrogant eternity’. It has to do with, as Larkin recognised elsewhere, mum and dad fucking him up.

Two sections of ‘The Waste Land’ haunt me: one concerns a church in danger of demolition, the other a chapel ruined long ago. Why, now, stylistic scrutiny? Partly, to avoid activating pre-existing currents of outrage, responses of mishearing and misinterpreting that have become culturally endemic, evoking squealing accusations of persecution (look, they’re trying to cancel T.S. Eliot now). Also, to argue for close reading as a sceptical and value-affirming exercise, probing poems as human-authored assemblages, not divine prophecy. It isn’t a question of ‘murdering to dissect,’ to apply Wordsworth, but of seeing the authority of style as constructed out of myriad materials. To tinily tweak Eliot’s own phrase, counterflows occur, of decision and revision:

O city city, I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandolin
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.

Eliot’s note to ‘The Waste Land’ – ‘St. Magnus Martyr is to my mind one of the finest among Wren’s interiors’ – directs us to a book on The Proposed Demolition of Nineteen City Churches. Though he hasn’t yet found his way back to Christianity, he affirms a sacred beauty at risk of erasure. The church grounds an otherwise alienated speaker, allowing him to tolerate and even relish the music and chatter of a ‘public bar’. Elsewhere, Eliot collocates secular modernity and immemorial piety, to the detriment of the former. Here a melodious camaraderie steps in. Eliot designates the ‘inexplicable splendour’ of the church interior – beyond, apparently, our understanding. But it was designed by Christopher Wren and built in stages, and rebuilt after the Great Fire of London, by human hands, just as Eliot’s poem wasn’t given to him instantaneously, lighting-engraved on a stone tablet, but laboriously hewn. The line-division on ‘hold’, pausing on that word and increasing its font size a point or two, implies an effort to keep the building standing. The structure ‘holds’, in that lingering pivot from one line to the next, and the rhyme with ‘gold’ affirms an integrity connected to but also transcending the church’s material history. We can deconstruct – again, in a spirit of attentiveness and not sabotage, of curiosity, if not collusion – this supposedly ‘inexplicable splendour.’ Both the short e vowel, and the pl phoneme appear in both ‘inexplicable’ and ‘splendour’, cementing those words with a sense of rightness, and urging a pause for emphasis after the noun. This caesura gives the line itself a symmetrical architecture, in a marvellous example of what Eliot called the ‘auditory imagination’. Its second half is also sound-patterned: the i and o vowels fused in the diphthong of ‘Ionian’ separate into ‘white’ and ‘gold’. An effect of supernatural ordering is created through the subtlest poetic means.

Eliot’s veering between relationality (the bar, the mandolin, the fishmen) and aloof grandiosity (the inexplicable church) is rescuable from the accents of prophecy some prefer to foreground. Within poems we may observe the creativeness sometimes warped into a shield against otherness, as it tentatively, even timidly, begins to imagine alternatives.

The second passage appears in ‘What the Thunder Said’, the fifth and last stretch of The Waste Land:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.

A fastidiousness pertaining to buildings, beliefs, and values that (to someone, hiding inside this poem) it seems vital to maintain, begins to give way, relax, with a gesture of abandonment that isn’t wholly despairing. The hunt for the right, even superciliously unexpected word continues with ‘faint’, which resonates in minutely unalike, sonically, ways with ‘decayed’ and ‘mountains’. ‘In this decayed hole […] / In the faint moonlight’. The phrases and adjective-noun combinations, resonate; the venture of trying to understand is foregrounded. My effort is to pinpoint the residual interpersonality of a poetics which at this point pretends to have left human conversation and human relationships behind.

Prepositions. The grass sings ‘over the tumbled graves’ it has covered over and effaced, its green blades seemingly nourished by the bodies buried below. The grass, at first glance, sings ‘about the chapel’: for a moment, a hope lineation gratifies, the wind’s sound through it has a meaning. The chapel generates a forcefield of ghostly yet abiding value. Yet we realise, after the line-ending, that ‘about’ functions, like ‘over’, as a value-neutral preposition akin to around. ‘About the chapel / There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home’. This dishevelment, readable as acquiescence (the poet throws his hands up) or a happier ceding of control (the ruin’s reclaimed by nature, uncertainties beyond micro-management aren’t evaded but accepted), is a version of the edgelord’s coat-trailing remark. A distant cousin of the attention-grabbing tweet. Or, it could be an alternative to such things, a less violent way of being surprising. Hypervigilance crescendos then wanes. A collapse occurs into a (to me) lovely slovenliness of circular syntax.

My point is not that Eliot – let alone Lawrence, Graham, Hughes, Hill, and Larkin – didn’t write well; it is that the agonised and alienated white masculinities which disproportionately poison today’s politics have historically dominated the mainstream of British poetry, to the extent that literary culture (styles of creative and critical writing, and the sparring sensibilities to match) has become a zone of aggressiveness, mythicizing, and self-mythicizing. A suite of behaviours appropriate to one kind of person has fastened so tightly to our ideas of value that discovering new ways of reading, writing, and relating to each other may require an effort of collective imagination and collective praxis. ‘The value of poetry in contemporary culture,’ writes Eric Falci, ‘must be premised upon decoupling that value from the presumed power or importance of poets.’

Harold Monro described ‘The Waste Land’ as ‘at the same time a representation, a criticism, and the disgusted outcry of a heart turned cynical.’ Poetry culture has too readily accepted, legitimised, and even venerated the leap from ‘disgusted outcry’ to ‘criticism’, claiming for outbursts of vindictiveness the status of civic commentary. When men who can’t build relationships affect to disdain them, they build systems instead, over-explanations granting them illusory, purely verbal victories over those whose existence they interpret as an affront. Much literary theorizing resembles, in its fact-neglecting ferocity, the misogynistic screeds of incels penning essays on Reddit, explaining exhaustingly why women are responsible for all the world’s problems.

What’s remarkable (depressing) is the sheer undiluted confidence with which white male grievance habitually redescribes its frustration as a form of universal truth. The claim of the edgelord, encountered on Twitter or in many poetry volumes, is everywhere the same: my anger, elaborated into a theory, explains everything. There is nothing for anyone else to say.

Eliot said off the record that ‘The Waste Land’ was ‘only […] a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling’. The cis-het white man isn’t a minority outside the poetry world: from day to day, he may feel himself at the centre of things. He transfers this assumption to his verse, claiming powers of prophecy and revolution. The violence-worship of his style explains itself as an atrocity-response (yes, my poetry is aggressive, but that’s because the world is an ugly place) – yet, since this poetry has no effect on the political nexus that it assigns as the fire to be fought with the edgelord’s fire, it descends into merely narcissistic rage.

Sweeney, in Eliot’s ‘Fragment of an Agon’, wrote: ‘Any man might do a girl in / Any man has to, needs to, wants to / Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.’ Zadie Smith, on edgelords, and their manifestos:

Why do we take him at his word? We reprint his self-aggrandizing ‘ideas’ and only 
as an afterthought wonder whether his brutality is not, at base, the result of a hopeless 
inadequacy, both personal and social, even as we keep on learning of the peculiar
coalescence, particularly in young men, of the thought I hate ---- people with thoughts 	     
like I can’t get anyone to sleep with me and I feel ugly.

What would poetry culture look like if it refused the transformation of personal grievances into ideologies? William Empson knew the score. He admired ‘The Waste Land’, but – reviewing Valerie Eliot’s facsimile of the drafts – surveyed the vectors of its creation: its appropriation of the voices of Eliot’s first wife and his housemaid, Eliot’s tussle with his parents, and his prejudices: ‘the rejected passages of Jew-baiting are still deeply involved in the final poetry’. This isn’t about burning ‘The Waste Land’. It’s about learning to see that beautiful and moving work as a multiple, contingent, self-conflicted, human construction. It isn’t prophecy, it’s a poem.

Vidyan Ravinthiran teaches at Harvard. The Million-Petalled Flower of Being Here (2019) won a Northern Writers Award, was a PBS Recommendation, and was shortlisted for the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes. Worlds Woven Together, a collection of his essays, is out now from Columbia UP.

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Summer 2022

Issue 102

The Summer 2022 issue of Poetry London proudly carries new poems by our featured author, Grace Nichols, who was recently awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, in addition to work by Yousif M Qasmiyeh, Sean O’Brien, Kostya Tsolakis, Jennifer Wong, Fred D’Aguiar, Saddiq Dzukogi and Jenny Xie, as well as Jemilea Wisdom-Baako, a recent participant of our mentoring scheme, who makes her debut appearance in the magazine.

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