They cast Hamlet as a young actor; they hand T.S. Eliot to high school students.
I’m sympathetic to both dilemmas.
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as young, the role reads young…but it’s extremely difficult to understand how those words and that mindset enfold upon themselves while one is actually that age. It makes much more sense in retrospect—ah, yeah. We were so <xxxx>, back then. But the casting comes across wrong if the actor has mid-life’s perspective to offer the interpretation: we’re finished with behaving that way by the time we understand why we’re behaving that way.
And the curse of the language arts teacher is that high school is the last best opportunity to trail glorious-but-not-trendy work across the attentions of a wide array of humans. We are no longer collected together quite that way afterwards, and once one doesn’t have the spur of a grade the probability of one going back to consume these worthy creations is close to nil. There is no Gravity’s Rainbow in my future, and probably no Slaughterhouse-Five unless one of my peers makes a compelling case. I read poetry as much out of professional honor as any inherent poetic desire.
But that’s changing. For the same causes, I think, that my opinion of T.S Eliot is changing.
Not that I’d pulled much plan together for the week, much less today, but today’s not resembling any of the sketches I’d made in my mind. A on the phone: “Well of course you took a nap, Mama. There were all those people you had to talk to. I would’ve!” So the large blank box of After the Physical/After the Fasting was, well, a generous homemade brunch + whodunit + sleep. Then talking to A. After that, lacking any conformable next-actions or momentum, I drifted into Facebook—meh—and landed on The Atlantic—oho!
When Writing Is Actually About Waiting
Hannah Tinti, the author of The Good Thief, explains what she learned about patience and risk from the T.S. Eliot poem “East Coker.”
The quote that grabbed Hannah Tinti by the heart caught my arm, too. Even more than that, I thought: “East Coker?” Didn’t I read that back in the day? Don’t I have Four Quartets? The answers: Nope and, if ever I did, I don’t now. Praise be to God for creativity in humans, which gives us both Four Quartets and the Internet!
If I had Four Quartets in my youth, I might have looked at them. Where “looked” means “opened the slim volume and rested my eyes on text, unfocused.” Starting in high school, through college, and into my twenties, I scorned Tom’s work. Well, Prufrock I liked. And maybe not because my dad liked it…and maybe not because my dad showed me how he (my dad) was annotating Prufrock, since he (my dad) was recognizing bits and bobs in there from his youth in language arts classes. They shared a canon, my dad and Tom, so recognition could happen. Like finding plastic Easter eggs in the yard a few weeks later.
I scorned Tom because I felt The Waste Land elitist and closed. I had a problem with jargon and closed systems even then, it’s true. The Waste Land was closed because one had to read all the footnotes in order to make any sense of what was going on. I didn’t/don’t have a problem with footnotes per se; I adore my study Bible, where each page is half footnote. Where I get crusty is when one can’t simply read the text without the footnotes. Tom had the benefit of an early-20th-century canonical Western education—and when reading The Waste Land, I was conscious of that Every. Single. Moment. White male privilege, faugh!
Years pass. Small children absorb my life like the sponges they are, as do the various strands of work I undertake. I leave a job and they give me a present, a gift and affirmation of the poet-life I was stepping into. And within the gift was a theatrical presentation of The Waste Land. Wha??
In that version, I felt grief and loss and muteness—the flip side of Tom’s knowing the canon we and those younger than us no longer read. Too, the elements that made me angry at twenty in my forties made me sad. “I remember this!” can be as much wistfulness as exclusion, a sort of noise we make so we can hear who is like us. Who we belong with.
So today I read “East Coker.” Read it out loud to myself, so I could hear it. And knew, and felt, things I could not have known or felt when I was twenty. At least I had learned enough then so that I knew where to return now.
“For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
—T.S. Eliot, East Coker: V, Four Quartets