Posts Tagged ‘T.S.Eliot’

Originality

In the realm of the literary arts, does anything as pristine and undiluted as originality exist? The word original is most commonly understood to mean not derived from something else. Often a novelist in the process of writing his opus magnum sedulously refuses to read someone else’s novel for fear he will be unconsciously influenced by another writer’s ideas or style. I say “phooey” on that fear. Of course, I am influenced consciously or unconsciously by everything I have ever read. It works like osmosis. I learned to write a complex sentence by patterning my sentence on someone else’s syntax. So what?

Influences play subtly or blatantly in writing. Great novels and poems are replete with literary allusions, references to Greek mythology, and universal symbols that countless other writers have used; yet each writer employs these borrowings from his predecessors in unique ways if his work is considered fresh. I staunchly subscribe to the position that the best way for a writer to improve and to grow in his style and vision is to read widely in the recognized great books of the world and to draw unabashedly upon literary tradition. Good books fertilize the imagination. Cross-pollination can create a brighter, stronger strain of flower. T.S. Eliot wrote about the necessity for the writer to cultivate what he called the historical sense, which “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” This historical sense combines with the writer’s consciousness of his contemporary scene to transcend the merely personal, enabling a fusion of his personal experience with a knowledge of the past. This fusion of past and present, according to T.S. Eliot, is the alchemy that renders the art timeless.

Therefore, it is hardly a slur for a work to be described as derivative or traditional. The study of comparative literature involves the identification of influences and cross-currents among cultures, so that the meaning of originality as complete freedom from outside influence or inspiration is a false construct. Instead of fear that reading other books will cause other writers’ ideas to creep into our “original” work, we should embrace them.  Wide exposure to the literary heritage of the world and a knowledge of history will only enhance the individual artist’s work. Imbued with the past, the individual talent can transmute his personal experience into art that transcends time and place. T.S. Eliot terms this depersonalization–the extinction of personality necessary to present a fresh insight into the universal human condition.

 

Advertisements

Cats and Writing

The unobtrusive presence of a cat is conducive to writing. They respect the long periods of silence and intense concentration their owners require for composition. A cat has been an ever-present muse in my writing room. However, if neglect extends to not refilling her bowl for a long time, she will gently remind the writer by walking back and forth across the computer keyboard.

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

My long-held supposition that cats are the preferred pet of most writers needed evidence. I set out to test this hypothesis. Selecting authors I like, I began my research into whether they were also cat lovers.

The first writer I selected was Anne Rice. Lo and behold, she is the proud owner of a furry white cat. Next I selected Joyce Carol Oates. My suspicions were confirmed there too. She owns a lovely cat Cherie, the subject of her children’s book. With Daniel Halpern she edited the anthology The Sophisticated Cat: A Gathering of Stories, Poems and Miscellaneous Writings about Cats. Oates, one of the most prolific writers,  attributed her legendary productivity to cats, stating “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up.” May Sarton, best known for her journals, wrote twenty novels and seventeen poetry books. She lived with her cat Bramble by the sea in York, Maine. Her novel The Fur Person attests to her affinity with cats. I have written elsewhere how I regret that Sarton’s novels are not more widely read. Sarton said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” I have to concur.

Women writers may have a predictable proclivity for cats, but what about male writers?  Certainly, T.S. Eliot is well-known for his fondness for the feline as evidenced in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, basis of the Broadway hit musical Cats.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a macho man like Ernest Hemingway owned twenty-three cats. I expected the avid hunter to be a diehard dog lover. On the contrary, he respected highly cats and is quoted as saying: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Hemingway called cats “purr factories” and “love sponges.” Another prolific writer, Stephen King, is a cat owner whose cat Clovis fingered in his screenplay Sleepwalkers, continuing the role cats have played in his work since the unforgettable cat Church in Pet Sematary.  My delight was unbounded when I discovered that Neil Gaiman (I much admired his American Gods)  is the owner of not just one but several cats. The prolificness of these writers and the presence of cats in their lives must be correlated.

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

Clearly, cats have served both as muse for writers and as characters in their writings. I have also used them in my work, first in the creation of Odette, the Persian cat in my novel Gerontion and the Maiden. She is the pet of main female character Felicia, a young ambitious woman who marries a rich, much older man for security. I have Felicia give this analysis of the cat’s personality:

The cat slinked into her lap and she stroked Odette’s long cream-colored coat. The pudgy feline purred smoothly like a fine-tuned motor in a just audible murmur. Felicia appreciated the cat’s satisfaction, poise and control—qualities she not only admired in animals but also in people. Not surprising cats were revered as sacred in some ancient cultures. Unlike the slobbering manner of dogs, they carried themselves with considerable dignity. And in their fashion faithful. They demanded affection without cloying, and in return, conferred respect. Odette required space in the same way Felicia set parameters on friendships.

Now as the Persian nestled against her stomach and accepted her attention, Felicia appreciated once more her pet’s uncanny intelligence. Odette understood her moods, only imposing her presence when she knew her mistress was completely relaxed, taking the cue from Felicia’s position curled up on the sofa with the tea cup. Her habits were imprinted on the cat’s brain. At the appointed time she awaited Felicia’s arrival home from work, poised upon the windowsill watching for her. When it was time for bed, all Felicia needed to do was whistle and Odette leapt into bed, settling into the small of her back as she lay on her stomach. The cat’s eyes shone like runway lights, guiding Felicia to the bathroom at night. Understandable that men preferred dogs. A good match, the dog governed by a need to serve and man to receive undivided attention. But woman desired a clean, unobtrusive, undemanding but comfortable companion, or at least, Felicia was one woman who did.

“Odette, sweetheart, you’re woman’s best friend,” she murmured to the contented feline. “More stable and kind than either a man or a woman. I don’t get your cast-off toms, do I?”

Cats assume a major role in my novel Delayed Reaction.  The hero in the novel owns seven cats. Jake, an aging Vietnam veteran, names them for key players during that period of American history: Ho Chin Minh, a grey-pointed Siamese; Madame Nhu, a fluffy, cream-colored Persian; Melvin Lard Butt, a black Manx; Kiss-Ass Kissinger, a tortoise-shell with white patch over one eye; Miss Saigon, a tawny Burmese with black paws; Wacky-Macky McNamara, an orange tabby; and Buddha, a three-legged grey tiger.  Cats are the catalyst for a drastic change in Jake’s outlook on life and trigger a series of events in which he becomes the mentor and friend to a teenaged boy.

Cats have traits that account for this compatibility with the writing life and writers’ fondness for them. They are solitary, independent creatures just like their owners. They are discriminating and do not suffer fools gladly, preferring to isolate themselves instead of socializing with nincompoops. Prolific writers are ones who are content to spend long hours alone. Solitude does not bother them. In school writers are rarely voted most popular. Popularity is not their goal nor is a cat concerned if it is liked or disliked. If anything a cat likes to rub against the leg of a person who dislikes him. Similarly, a writer will not shy from offending those of contrary opinions or debunking the majority viewpoint for the sake of opening up a larger vision of the world. Cats are nonchalant.  Cats are low maintenance. They have dignity and a quiet intelligence. Their respect must be gained. The fawning, licking, rambunctiousness, yapping and sycophancy of dogs are not conducive to the writing life or the typical writer’s personality.  A cat, I conclude, is the pet that prolific writers pick for company in the solitary art of writing.  Molly has been curled up on my desk while I wrote this disquisition on cats and writing. I’ll sign off with a long mee-ee-ee-ow-ow-ow.

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer's Desk

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer’s Desk

Automatic Writing: Aspasia in Gerontion and the Maiden

Pearl Curran (Feb. 15, 1883 – Dec.4, 1937) Medium for Patience Worth Writings

By automatic writing I mean messages a channeler receives from a spirit and records in writing or dictates to a transcriber.  This definition distinguishes it from simple stream of consciousness techniques or trance-like states writers may induce to inspire creativity. I was introduced to the subject in 1972 when my neighbor, an older woman, gave me the book Singer in the Shadows,  the story of a St. Louis housewife, Pearl Curran, who received during the period from 1913-1937 proverbs, poetry, plays, and novels from the spirit of Patience Worth, a New England housewife of the 1600s.  Although many theories have been advanced, there is no satisfactory explanation for how Mrs. Curran, who had an eighth grade education and was not widely read, could have composed the writings in archaic English and with historical details of the period. Five of Patience Worth’s poems were anthologized in 1917 along with the respected poetry of Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters.

Reputable authors have dabbled in automatic writing. Among them are James Merrill and W.B. Yeats. Merrill claimed that his poetry collection The Changing Light at Sandover resulted from messages through a Ouija board. Although Pearl Curran’s first contacted Patience Worth when she and a friend were playing with a Ouija board, Pearl eventually abandoned its use when the communications came too quickly.  The September 2010 Smithsonian Magazine contains an excellent article on Pearl Curran.  More recently, Jane Roberts received messages from the entity named Seth that she recorded in her Seth books.

Helen Schucman (July 14, 1909 – Feb. 9, 1981)

Helen Schucman, a Columbia University psychologist, scribed  A Course in Miracles  through what she called a “Voice” over the course of seven years from 1965-1972.  An atheist and a skeptic, Schucman could not scientifically explain her dictation that reached in excess of 1000 pages of metaphysical thought.

The experience of reading Pearl Curran’s story remained with me until in the late 1980s when I came to write my novel centering around the young, ambitious Felicia Mendive who marries Augustus Walsingham, a wealthy man old enough to not just be her father but her grandfather. I set my novel in St. Louis, in middle America to suggest the balance, the golden mean, that fine equilibrium between reason and passion, which is Felicia’s quandary. Felicia and her three women friends visit a channeler who receives messages from the spirit of Aspasia, an actual woman of ancient Greece.

Marble sculpture with Aspasia inscribed on the base found in Rome now in Vatican Museum

Aspasia, a learned courtesan and skilled rhetorician, associated with Socrates and other philosophers in ancient Greece, became the mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles. Central to my theme was a May-December marriage and conveniently Aspasia and Pericles represent a pairing of a young woman with a prominent old man.  I use the phenomena of channeling to advance the theme that some truths are unseen, that the spirit needs nourishment as well as the body. Living in affluence, wary of giving way to emotion, Felicia cannot realize happiness.  Likewise, Mrs. Curran had all the comforts of a middle-class life in 1913, yet still was drawn into a supersensible realm.

St. Louis is also the birthplace of T.S. Eliot.  To evoke his memory, I wanted Aspasia to speak her messages in blank verse.  After all, Gerontion (a pseudonym for Augustus Walsingham) is the title of  Eliot’s poem in the persona of an old man.  The etymology of the word is from the Greek geront meaning old age. Not until the end of the novel does Aspasia switch to prose when she speaks directly to Felicia, but always Aspasia’s tone is elevated.  Here is a taste of Aspasia’s poetic lines:

She shall not grieve the lost of taste or touch

or stop the cough in an old man’s cracked throat

with cushions or coins stacked in palace halls

but bend her mind to the young body’s will,

nor shall she rue aught in a dry season

when ambrosia brewed of Zeus she’s sucked.

Socrates Seeking Alcibiades in the House of Aspasia, 1861 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme

The Dramatic Monologue: Biblical Women Speak

A dramatic monologue in poetry is not exactly the same type of speech as a soliloquy in the theatre.  In a soliloquy the character is alone on stage speaking his thoughts Woman at the Wellaloud. There is no auditor other than the audience who is eavesdropping on those thoughts; although in a poetic dramatic monologue, the speaker could be alone talking aloud to himself, too.

Often the dramatic monologue is termed a persona poem, because the voice, the “I” of the poem, is a person speaking. In the process, the speaker reveals his personality traits and situation.  Often his words are directed to an implied auditor. Other times the auditor is identified by use of direct address.  The dramatic monologue could be described as a one-way conversation.

The soliloquy in theatre and the dramatic monologue in poetry share in common the dramatization of character.  The dramatic monologue works to communicate peculiarities of speech, distinctive traits; and details about the time, place and other circumstances of the character’s life.  Inherently, the dramatic monologue is fully realized in its theatrical performance. Some of the most memorable poems in English literature are dramatic monologues. In high school, Robert Browning’s classic poem in this form—“My Last Duchess”—fired my passion for poetry. In Browning’s poem there is an implied auditor to the Duke’s remarks. In another unforgettable example, T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” identity of the “you” that Prufrock addresses in the opening lines is open to speculation. The dramatic nature of these poems endows them with a story-telling power not comparable in lyrical poetry. Robert Frost expanded the dramatic poem to a two-way conversation in such poems as “Death of the Hired Man” and “Home Burial.”

Before writing the collection Women at the Well, I had dabbled in persona poems, chiefly because the dramatic aspect made them ideal for oral interpretation in a Readers’ Theatre setting. The centerpiece of the collection is the woman whom Jesus meets at the well. She gives him water and he probes her soul. After hearing a church homily on John 4:1-28, I went home to write the poem “Woman at the Well.” That poem got me thinking about other nameless women in the Bible whose back stories begged to be told. Even the big name players like Deborah and Judith needed an expanded voice. In rereading the women’s stories, I discovered there was so much left unsaid in the male version that the gaping holes had to be filled. And the women’s stories must be told in their own words as imaginatively as I could.

I appointed myself to do this task in 1986.  When I started the project, I was aware that revisionist looks at the Bible were appearing more in both fiction and non-fiction. As the poems progressed, I saw my Old Testament women filled with rage while the New Testament women reflected Christ’s message of love. The New Testament women were frequently the first Christian converts, so that in Part Two of the Women at the Well, the speeches become less strident. Since then my dramatic monologues have gone through two revisions and expansions.  In its latest edition Women at the Well now includes the voices of sixty-one Old and New Testament women.

I confess to taking many liberties; I offer unorthodox interpretations of some of the Biblical women’s lives. I even went so far as to include a dramatic monologue by a woman who is never mentioned in the Bible: Judas’ mother. I wondered what the mother would say about her son’s betrayal of Jesus.  In some poems, it is clear whom the woman addresses; in others her auditor is unidentified. In the paired piece, “Lot’s Daughters,” I have the two sisters alternate in a two-way conversation. The dramatic monologue in all its manifestations proved ideal for having the Biblical women come alive on the stage. In retrospect, I had probably the most fun writing this book than any other.

Writers usually turn to writing the types of writing that they enjoy.  Naturally, I turned to dramatic monologue in Women at the Well, having read so much memorable poetry written in this form.

Can you recommend some dramatic monologues in poetry?  Have you used the form in your own poetry?