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T.S. Eliot

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T.S. Eliot...I'm sure you've at least heard of him if not read him extensively in a college literature class. My English teacher gave us "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to read last week. He said (and I tried to find criticism to support this but couldn't find it) that this poem was argued by some to be the best poem ever written in Western literature. Keeping this in mind, I read it. I didn't really understand it, so I read it several more times until I got a basic idea what Eliot was trying to say. I haven't read Rand's views on aesthetics extensively but I do remember hearing Peikoff saying that art should portray man "as he could be and ought to be."

This poem, which I will post if someone hasn't read it and wants to check it out, doesn't directly show how man ought to be. Instead, Eliot writes about how most men are very self-conscious, somewhat pretentious, and constantly concerned with what society will think of them. He displays these characteristics of man, however, not to advocate them or even indifferently state them. The poem, at least from what I could understand, serves to really warn the reader of the stifled and restrictive life one leads when he is constantly worried what other people think and doesn't really act on his own beliefs because he is too scared his ideas will be rejected by others.

Is this poem's technique of conveying a message, from an Objectivist point of view, aesthetically good? He doesn't directly show how one ought to be, but he presents a contrast of how man is now and by his tone, it is evident that he thinks people should act differently.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1919)

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,

Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo. (1)

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized (2) upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust (3) restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .

Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"

Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo. (4)

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--

[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--

[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:--

Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I know the voices dying with a dying fall

Beneath the music from a farther room.

So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all--

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all--

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare

[but in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]

Is it perfume from a dress

That makes me so digress?

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.

And should I then presume?

And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets

And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes

Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!

Smoothed by long fingers,

Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,

Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, (5)

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter, (6)

I am no prophet--and here's no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,

After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,

Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

Would it have been worth while,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it toward some overwhelming question,

To say: "I am Lazarus, (7) come from the dead

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"--

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.

That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,

Would it have been worth while,

After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,

After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the

floor--

And this, and so much more?--

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern (8) threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:

Would it have been worth while

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,

And turning toward the window, should say:

"That is not it at all,

That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, (9) nor was meant to be;

Am an attendant lord, one that will do

To swell a progress, start a scene or two,

Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,

Deferential, glad to be of use,

Politic, cautious, and meticulous;

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse

At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--

Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . .I grow old . . .

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

(1) A passage from Dante Alighieri's Inferno (Canto 27, lines 61-66) spoken by Guido da Montefeltro in response to the questions of Dante, who Guido supposes is dead, since he is in Hell:. The flame in which Guido is encased vibrates as he speaks: "If I thought that that I was replying to someone who would ever return to the world, this flame would cease to flicker. But since no one ever returns from these depths alive, if what I've heard is true, I will answer you without fear of infamy."

(2) Anesthetized with ether; but also suggesting "made etherial," less real.

(3) Cheap bars and restaurants used to spread sawdust on the floor to soak up spilled beer, etc.

(4) The great Renaissance Italian artist.

(5) Cookies and ice cream.

(6) Like John the Baptist (see Matthew 14: 1-12)

(7) A man raised from death by Jesus (see John 11: 1-44).

(8) Early form of slide projector.

(9) Shakespeare's sensitive hero known for procrastination.

Edited by Mimpy
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It's interesting to know that the only thing that Rand says about poem or poetry in The Romantic Manifesto is "A poem does not have to tell a story; its basic attributes are theme and style". This would be an example of the sort of thing that I point to when people ask me "Why do you dislike poetry?". Poetry should be primarily judged in terms of form, on which grounds, the best I can say is that "It's okay". I mean, it does at least have rhyme, although there is no discernable rhythmic pattern. What it does is steal a waste-product of good poetry, namely incomprehensibility, or at least, serious opacity. In strong form-based poetry, sentence structure and word choice are often warped (but not without limit!) in order to get the right rhythmic pattern or rhyming sequences. That usually cannot be done without rendering the meaning obscure. For some reason, some poets think that this means "The essence of poetry is obscurity of meaning". I've never understood that.

The poem does not clearly portray anything, it is formally marginal, and so I think that what the poem might have going for it is inscrutability. Historically speaking, it's a fact that his poetry is considered to be "important" for a particular movement (modernist poetry), of which this bit of stream of consciousness is an exemplar. As pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement, "The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry".

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T.S. Eliot...I'm sure you've at least heard of him if not read him extensively in a college literature class. My English teacher gave us "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to read last week. He said (and I tried to find criticism to support this but couldn't find it) that this poem was argued by some to be the best poem ever written in Western literature.
Some? Who, him and his friends? : P Some have argued the same thing about Green Eggs and Ham, I'm sure. The question is--why should their opinions matter?

Keeping this in mind, I read it. I didn't really understand it
That was the poet's intent.

This poem, which I will post if someone hasn't read it and wants to check it out, doesn't directly show how man ought to be. Instead, Eliot writes about how most men are very self-conscious, somewhat pretentious, and constantly concerned with what society will think of them. He displays these characteristics of man, however, not to advocate them or even indifferently state them. The poem, at least from what I could understand, serves to really warn the reader of the stifled and restrictive life one leads when he is constantly worried what other people think and doesn't really act on his own beliefs because he is too scared his ideas will be rejected by others.
I'm not sure if the poem deserves such a generous interpretation, but maybe that will make it easier to get through the class.

Is this poem's technique of conveying a message, from an Objectivist point of view, aesthetically good? He doesn't directly show how one ought to be, but he presents a contrast of how man is now and by his tone, it is evident that he thinks people should act differently.
I could only find one specific reference to TS Eliot in The Objectivism Research CD-ROM, and it was from Leonard Peikoff, not Ayn Rand. It's from The Ominous Parallels, which is a book that analyzes the cultural/philosophical trends in Germany which led to the rise of Nazism, and compares them to trends in America. (A very interesting book, btw).

The last of the nineteenth-century defenders of laissez-faire were gone. The schools and colleges were not turning out replacements. Although Progressivism had faded, its major cultural ally was flourishing: the twenties marked the emergence of Progressive education as a national force. For the first time, the ideas of the new educators gained a mass base, spreading beyond a comparatively small vanguard to engulf the children of the middle class. Increasingly, the children were hearing more about feelings and less about objective reality; they were also hearing more about social responsibility and less about the country's past. A generation was losing the knowledge of what the American system had originally been.

At the same time, the avant-garde, led by a group of expatriates, was introducing a similar perspective into the arts; it was presiding over the first major eruption in America of the modernist revolt against objectivity and the nineteenth century. Obediently imitating their old-world mentors, fawning over Continental decadence while cursing the "philistine Americans," the Pound-Eliot-Stein axis and its equivalents in the other arts were turning out free verse, stream-of-consciousness novels, expressionist plays, "abstract" paintings, nonintelligible forms, nongraspable symbols, obscurity as a means of "bourgeoisie"-baiting, obscurity offered as spirituality, obscurity for its own sake. The artists said they were bored by life in the United States; they found European manifestations they could admire. The work of Paul Klee, boasted the newly founded Museum of Modern Art during the painter's American debut in 1930, "makes the flesh creep by creating a spectre fresh from a nightmare."

America was still decades away from the cultural condition of Germany. At one time, however, the distance between them would have had to be measured in light years.

(The "Pound-Eliot-Stein axis" is a reference to Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, and Gertrude Stein).

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1919)

The one thing I can say good about this poem is: at least it rhymes!

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse

A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,

Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.

Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo

Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,

Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo.

[...]Talking of Michelangelo.

[...]

Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter

[...]

To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead

[...]

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

I think it's pretty lame when a poet as poor as Eliot fills his works with references to better artists, poets, and writers. It's as though he hopes that his poem will be improved by the strength of their reputations.

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--

What a repulsive couplet that is!

(1) A passage from Dante Alighieri's Inferno (Canto 27, lines 61-66) spoken by Guido da Montefeltro in response to the questions of Dante, who Guido supposes is dead, since he is in Hell:. The flame in which Guido is encased vibrates as he speaks: "If I thought that that I was replying to someone who would ever return to the world, this flame would cease to flicker. But since no one ever returns from these depths alive, if what I've heard is true, I will answer you without fear of infamy."

(2) Anesthetized with ether; but also suggesting "made etherial," less real.

(3) Cheap bars and restaurants used to spread sawdust on the floor to soak up spilled beer, etc.

(4) The great Renaissance Italian artist.

(5) Cookies and ice cream.

(6) Like John the Baptist (see Matthew 14: 1-12)

(7) A man raised from death by Jesus (see John 11: 1-44).

(8) Early form of slide projector.

(9) Shakespeare's sensitive hero known for procrastination.

It's a testament to the unintelligibility of modernist poems that one as short as this one can have 9 footnotes, and they add almost nothing to the meaning of the poem. For instance, number 4. Well, duh about him being a Renaissance artist (though I wonder if Eliot really thought he was great)--but does anyone have a clue what he has to do with this poem?

This would be an example of the sort of thing that I point to when people ask me "Why do you dislike poetry?"
Personally, I love poetry. But I don't like this or anything else I've read by TS Eliot. What's the point of reading [or writing] something if its meaning is entirely ambiguous? Besides getting a grade in a class, which is a good reason if you want to do good in the class, but I mean other than that.
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I had to read that poem in my English 12 class. My teacher was absolutely gaga over it, calling it the best poem ever written and if we didn't like it then we weren't smart people. Now I was probably the best person in the class at understanding poems, and I had no idea what it was about until she told us. To me that just reaffirmed my theory that the best way to write a "good" poem is to make it so nobody can understand it.

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At the risk of outing myself as an extreme minority here…

I like this poem. (Charlotte cowers)

It is not the best poem I have read, but it is not the worst. And there is much more in its favor than “that it rhymes”.

The poem wields a fine diction that appears effortless in the midst of the stream of consciousness flow. There is clever analogy, as in “Streets that follow like a tedious argument,” where the reader (or at least this reader) steps back to marvel at the unique comparison made, sensing a familiarity in it. In speaking of the fog there is personification, that it “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,” and the image is quite poignant. One can sense the thick movement of the fog, feel the weight of an evening in which it lingers. He backs up the personification with imagery, as in “And seeing that it was a soft October night,/Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.” The soothing feel of these lines is carefully crafted, in the consonance of the S sound and the sparse but selective use of adjectives (i.e., “soft” and “October”).

That the events and people Eliot references are ambiguous is not, to me, the point. I presume that he wrote this with his own intent, and so whether or not the readers knew who the women talking of Michelangelo were, or represented, was not his priority.

In any case, I appreciate the use of rhetorical techniques in the poem, despite the lack of a coherent series of events.

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Mimpy brings up a point that I have also wondered about. Miss Rand does say that art should try to portray man as he "ought to be" - in fact, this is the whole backbone of romantic realism. But is it still in good taste to present a story about a character to serve as a warning? I think it is, but not on the same plane as portraying a hero. It is much more interesting and difficult to portray what man should be like than it is to portray what he should not be like. Besides, one of the best ways to show a character flaw is through juxtaposition with a hero. I can only come up with two good reasons why one would not portray a hero: (1) The author has no conception of what his hero would look like or (2) The author does not believe a hero is possible. The former is simply an author who is not fully developed philosophically, or perhaps doesn't think his writing can do his hero justice, in which case, he is not fully developed as an author (or he's a bad one). The latter is a philosophical error.

While I don't think it is necessarily bad art to portray what man should not be like, to serve as a warning for generations to come, but I would not put it as especially good art either. A hero can serve as a great inspiration. A warning does not. (Certainly not on the same scale anyway.)

Any thoughts?

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At the risk of outing myself as an extreme minority here…

I like this poem. (Charlotte cowers)

I enjoyed reading your comments on the techniques used, and their effects. Thank you for sharing them.

For me, this poem was somewhat like one of those George Winston tapes my mother has. George Winston is a pianist who records for Windham Hill, a New Age-ish label of sorts. Think "music you'd hear at the massage therapist." There are plenty of moments where you can say, "Oh, that was a poignant Neapolitan 6th chord," or "a clever little turn in the oboe accompaniment," but it doesn't add up to a piece of music.

The difference is that with massage-piano music, I don't think it's supposed to add up; the music is intended for background relaxation, not attentive listening.

Higher standards apply when our teachers tell us, "Read this. This is one of the greatest poems in Western literature." We may admire a particularly well-turned phrase. If we're a cooperative type, we may warm our imaginative sympathies enough to place the smaller details. We might write well-thought-out, insightful papers explaining how several items in the poem are related to each other. But just the fact that it contained enough layers of imagery to make a passable paper, doesn't make it great.

The closest I've gotten to understanding why anything is "great" literature or a "great" poem (according to conventional standards), is: "Because X can kind of mean this, and Y can kind of mean that, and it's all related together in a way, and it ties into a theme that is important to Western literature."

--Schefflera

Edited by Schefflera Arboricola
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... a warning for generations to come, but I would not put it as especially good art either.
It can be good art, but not great art, in this sense: if one had to choose a single favorite book of all time, such a book would not make it, because it would be incomplete. One can portray such evil and still be in the Romanticism genre, as Ayn Rand defined it. The example that Rand uses is Dostoevsky.

In portraying evil (or "weakness") the key is whether the reader sees the villain (or "weakling") making bad decisions at various points of the plot. The "warning" that the reader is receiving is: bad decisions and bad motivations lead to bad character and bad outcomes. And -- in that -- there is an implicit message that good decisions lead to good character and outcomes. This is Romanticism. The type of warning that would not qualify as Romanticism, is where the hero keeps trying his best and is constantly put down by "forces outside his control". Such art implies hopelessness.

The problem with a Romantic work that shows only evil is that it leaves too much work on the shoulders of the reader. However, readers do not read just a single book. For instance, imagine that Dostoevsky wrote a book about how Peter Keating made a whole lot of societally-acceptable decisions, and achieved societally-accepted success, and yet was an extremely unhappy man. That could contrast with The Fountainhead and make one appreciate Roark all the more. Without the positive, though, it's incomplete. Also, I doubt a rational and psychologically healthy reader would say the Keating book is his favorite.

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Is this poem's technique of conveying a message, from an Objectivist point of view, aesthetically good?

As I understand it, this question isn't really answerable because aesthetics from the Objectivist point of view is fundamentally concerned not with technique or style, but with content. Ayn Rand defined art as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value judgments." Not included in that definition is any implied requirement of medium, subject, technique, or style. She was primarily concerned with the artist's purpose, of what he was trying to accomplish -- not with the technicalities of how he goes about it.

So from the Objectivist aesthetics, there is nothing much to say about the poem's technique as such. Whether or not there are skillful uses of the various literary devices is irrelevant to any discussion of its artistic merit. What is relevant to aesthetic judgment is whether the poem fulfills the purpose of art qua art, which is to concretize the artist's metaphysical value-judgments, i.e. to project his view of the world.

In the Romantic Manifesto, Rand writes:

One of the distinguishing characteristics of a work of art (including literature) is that it serves no practical, material end, but is an end in itself; it serves no purpose other than contemplation—and the pleasure of that contemplation is so intense, so deeply personal that a man experiences it as a self-sufficient, self-justifying primary and, often, resists or resents any suggestion to analyze it: the suggestion, to him, has the quality of an attack on his identity, on his deepest, essential self.

...

Art does have a purpose and does serve a human need; only it is not a material need, but a need of man's consciousness. Art is inextricably tied to man's survival—not to his physical survival, but to that on which his physical survival depends: to the preservation and survival of his consciousness.

If you agree with her view that art is a need of man, that it serves the purpose of emotional fuel which is drawn from art's ability to "make one's metaphysical abstractions fully real to oneself" as Peikoff puts it, then I'd say this poem deserves criticism because insofar as I can understand it, it depicts a man unsure of himself and neurotic about the views of others. If the purpose of art is to fuel myself, what value can I draw from reading the mind of a neurotic second-hander? Even if I recognize that he is the opposite of how I want to be, it is only because I've got some other source for the positive view, such as the Fountainhead. Even in The Fountainhead, Keating was depicted to serve as a contrast to Roark; a novel purely about Keating wouldn't have been able to achieve the same goal, namely the inspiration we can derive from contemplating the vision of Roark.

I'd be interested to know whether Eliot wrote this poem in order to warn the reader about the pitfalls of second-handedness, or to point out what is in his view an inescapable flaw of human nature.

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In school I had to write a "poem" in Eliot's style. I doubt anyone can make any more of the Eliot "poem" than of my intentionally nonsensical writing:

Singed Anthology

Per Thomas Stearns Eliot, l’assassino di poesia

Ad captandum vulgus, caveat lector

E siamo andato giù a quella nave, abbiamo regolato la chiglia agli

interruttori, i nostri corpi egualmente, pesanti con piangere

Part I: A Glass of Blood

Twenty-nine is the darkest year,

My pencil will not write a poem

Nor paper speak of lines nor minutiae

Á méchant ouvrier, point de bon outil

Words cut off oxygen

The best laid plans of mice and men

Or the chirping of a wren

Or the lurking of a rhyme?

When expecting rhyme with “wren,” but there is a “rhyme” with “wren”

Contradiction? Autant de têtes, autant d’avis

And I draw on many sources

Yet the gods tremble, for man made them marble monuments

Exegit monumentum aere perennius

My marble will not outlast bronze

And what of “The Last Supper”?

Target for Napoleon

Is Judas in our midst

Why, a solipsist

Do you remember when we walked into Harvard Square

With raindrops in your hair?

Up the streets you and I, into the ethereal sky?

Part II: A Castle in the Dust

Rain thickens over bloodied lands

Like arsenic smeared on a windowpane

Or a widow’s pain

Enter into the land of dead prophets

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’intrate

Where the willows grow

Wo waschen die Weiden?

Y el río es como una senda al Infierno

But why speak of rivers when overland is faster?

For those to whom trivia is consequential

Move on, dead cat for now is the time

The weeping time, when the moon becomes ethereal and the sun loses its radiance

Poor player, strut no more

Conosco che nerezza abita nel cuore dell'uomo .

The mushrooms of time leave no one behind

So I won’t click my bones like stacked heels

Or bother you with trials and Traube–ulation

Or con you with satire like the Satyricon

Part III: A River of Sunlight

Yes, I can speak of love

Strapperó la vostra carne dalle vostre ossa

Do you remember the time we strolled to Vienna?

Schönbrunn mocked Versailles

But Versailles laughed back

And we drank Einspanner mit Schlagg at Sacher and ate tortes at Demel

We merrily sped over Buda’s hills like Bishop Gellert

We went across the Danube

And paused in Pest

Once we crossed the Thames , and admired Turnbull and Asser

And stared at the Coliseum for an hour

Remember when we went to Norway and ate fish, and watched the sunrise at midnight?

Part IV: A Handful of Rust

Thank you for the time to read a poem

Ars longa, vita brevis

Ich habe mich verlaufen

Können Sie mir helfen?

Or break sinewy ground

With earth upon the coffin

A grama é sempre mais verde do lado do vizinho

And the grass slithers from the mud

Do I carry on too long?

Do you not listen?

A buen entenedor pocas palabras

But the boxes of books come and go you see

Speaking of Scientology

Freed from their encasement

A gradual abasement?

A tentative velation?

I’m afraid I’m not Joycean

But we shan’t spar over details

For fear we’ll meet the devil

Perservare diabolicum.

For fear we’ll meet the devil

He’ll demand a pound of flesh

An Ezra Pound of flesh?

No doubt an Ezra Pound of poetics lain to waste in “The Waste Land ”

To wit, my man or to my Whitman ?

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice

From what I’ve tasted of desire, it goes well with steamed rice

But my puns grow hollow over brackish waters

Very brackish, all the better to appear deep

Les calembours indiquent l'âme de l'obscurité, la langue de raillerie de la mort

Obscuris vera involvens

No, not in all things, not in this

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So from the Objectivist aesthetics, there is nothing much to say about the poem's technique as such. Whether or not there are skillful uses of the various literary devices is irrelevant to any discussion of its artistic merit. What is relevant to aesthetic judgment is whether the poem fulfills the purpose of art qua art, which is to concretize the artist's metaphysical value-judgments, i.e. to project his view of the world.

So, if I draw a stick-figure representing a heroic man, perhaps draw him standing proudly atop a stick-figure mountain, that is quality art? Or if I write a novel that lacks style and form and shows no rhetorical skill whatsoever, but depicts a woman's struggle and success in the corporate world, that is valuable art?

I agree that concretizing one's values is essential to great works of art, but I cannot concede that talent and skill have nothing to do with it.

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I agree that concretizing one's values is essential to great works of art, but I cannot concede that talent and skill have nothing to do with it.
No, that would clearly be the wrong thing to say. But "talent" has to be talent at something. I read Spano's comment as referring primarily to the facts of this putative poem (hey, if you're gonna defend it, you have to expect grief): "nothing much to say about the poem's technique as such", emphasis added. I do not see this particular poem as being a skillful concretization of the artist's metaphysical value-judgments. Now I don't want to imply that Eliot was utterly lacking in non-trivial ability at such skillful concretizations (i.e. yes, there were a few clever lines), but taken as a whole, I recommend the poetry of Laszlo Walrus as comparable in talent. Sorry, Laszlo. No insult intended. Eliot clearly has the superior reputation, I'm just not clear that he has the superior talent.
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So, if I draw a stick-figure representing a heroic man, perhaps draw him standing proudly atop a stick-figure mountain, that is quality art? Or if I write a novel that lacks style and form and shows no rhetorical skill whatsoever, but depicts a woman's struggle and success in the corporate world, that is valuable art?

Touché, madam johnglatline :). I didn't mean to imply that the intention of the artist is all there is to great art, as if my stick-figure drawings should be displayed in museums simply because I intended them to project proper metaphysical concretizations. Certainly the artwork must be skillfully done as well, because otherwise the content is obscured. It's a matter of communication; a work of art has a message to convey, and the style or implementation is the means by which that message is conveyed, whether it consists of paint strokes or sentences or couplets or musical notes. But I think that a high degree of skill should make the implementation transparent, not the object of appreciation. For example, when I look at this painting by Bryan Larsen, my reaction to it as art doesn't consist of noting immediately the fine lines of the cabling or the colors of the water or the detail on the man's shirt; it consists of seeing achievement, applied reason, and subjugation of nature for man's purposes concretized before my eyes. Fundamentally, I think the value of art comes from that immediate emotional reward -- the particular skill involved may be a secondary area for admiration, but it doesn't substitute for the concretization of values.

So yes, skill is necessary. But I don't think a poet who alliterates skillfully about minutiae or metaphysical irrelevancies can be properly called a good artist, nor his poems good art.

Hope that makes sense. :blush:

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At the risk of outing myself as an extreme minority here…

I like this poem. (Charlotte cowers)

Ha-Well, I hope you know you don't need to cower on my account, since I respect your literary opinion more than anyone else's I know.

It is not the best poem I have read, but it is not the worst. And there is much more in its favor than “that it rhymes”.
I'll grant you that it's not the worst--not anything approaching the worst. But what I see in Eliot is the beginning of the end in poetry. Between 1919 and now, there has been a lot of poetry that is a lot worse than this--pretty much all of the beat poets wrote worse stuff, IMO. But would any of that have been possible if not for Eliot, and those like him such as Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein? Undoubtedly the majority of poems written since 1919 have been worse than this. But what about the majority of poems written between the Renaissance and 1919? Were they worse or better? I think most of them were better--most that I've read, anyway.

There is clever analogy, as in “Streets that follow like a tedious argument,” where the reader (or at least this reader) steps back to marvel at the unique comparison made, sensing a familiarity in it.

Hmm.. That's actually a simile rather than an analogy, isn't it? Maybe I would be able to appreciate the comparison if you would be willing to explain it to me. What does "Streets that follow" mean? Arguments can follow, and people can follow streets, but what does it mean to say streets that follow? Follow what?

In speaking of the fog there is personification, that it “Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,” and the image is quite poignant. One can sense the thick movement of the fog, feel the weight of an evening in which it lingers. He backs up the personification with imagery, as in “And seeing that it was a soft October night,/Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.” The soothing feel of these lines is carefully crafted, in the consonance of the S sound and the sparse but selective use of adjectives (i.e., “soft” and “October”).
Yeah, I guess those are some strengths of the poem besides the rhyme scheme.

That the events and people Eliot references are ambiguous is not, to me, the point. I presume that he wrote this with his own intent, and so whether or not the readers knew who the women talking of Michelangelo were, or represented, was not his priority.

Hmm. I'm not sure I understand this. Was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock discovered in a private diary of T.S. Eliot's, and not intended for publication? I thought it was intended for a general audience. Is it appropriate for an author to fill his works with "inside" references that an audience would be incapable of grasping, without knowing the author personally (or, perhaps, without being the author, or perhaps, not even then)? Should intelligible communication not be an author's priority? Why does one write, then? Why show anybody?

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It can be good art, but not great art, in this sense: if one had to choose a single favorite book of all time, such a book would not make it, because it would be incomplete. One can portray such evil and still be in the Romanticism genre, as Ayn Rand defined it. The example that Rand uses is Dostoevsky.

In portraying evil (or "weakness") the key is whether the reader sees the villain (or "weakling") making bad decisions at various points of the plot. The "warning" that the reader is receiving is: bad decisions and bad motivations lead to bad character and bad outcomes. And -- in that -- there is an implicit message that good decisions lead to good character and outcomes. This is Romanticism. The type of warning that would not qualify as Romanticism, is where the hero keeps trying his best and is constantly put down by "forces outside his control". Such art implies hopelessness.

The problem with a Romantic work that shows only evil is that it leaves too much work on the shoulders of the reader. However, readers do not read just a single book. For instance, imagine that Dostoevsky wrote a book about how Peter Keating made a whole lot of societally-acceptable decisions, and achieved societally-accepted success, and yet was an extremely unhappy man. That could contrast with The Fountainhead and make one appreciate Roark all the more. Without the positive, though, it's incomplete. Also, I doubt a rational and psychologically healthy reader would say the Keating book is his favorite.

Okay. I think I agree with everything you said. I think that's pretty much what I said, with the exception of what qualifies as "romantic". When I said "not especially good" I meant, "not great". This was, obviously, unclear.

Thanks, that really did help with defining romantic art.

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Just wanted to add a reference. In "The Art of Fiction", the last chapter is titled "Special Forms of Literature". In this chapter, there is a section titled "Tragedy and the Projection of Negatives". Rand speaks of tragedy (e.g. the endings of "We the Living" and "Cyrano de Bergerac") and then tackles negatives, saying this about Dostoevsky:

They are, in a way, incomplete works of fiction. I like them as a spectacle of human intelligence and perceptiveness at work -- the spectacle of what the Dostoevsky's mind is able to identify and present. But after one finishes, one has only the satisfaction of having learned something about human nature, not the artistic satisfaction of having lived through an experience which is an end in itself.
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As I understand it, this question isn't really answerable because aesthetics from the Objectivist point of view is fundamentally concerned not with technique or style, but with content.
"Content" is a broad term. What aspect of the content do you mean? Do you mean theme, philosophical message, what?

Ayn Rand comments a lot about style in "The Art of Fiction". There is a a whole chapter on "Style: Depictions of love" and another on "Style: Depictions of Nature and of New York". There is also a chapter on "Particular Issues of Style", which has sections on:

  • Narrative versus Dramatization
  • Exposition
  • Flashbacks
  • Transitions
  • Metaphors
  • Descriptions
  • Dialogue
  • Slang
  • Obscenities
  • Journalistic References

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Ha-Well, I hope you know you don't need to cower on my account, since I respect your literary opinion more than anyone else's I know.

Aww, shucks. :blush:

I'll grant you that it's not the worst--not anything approaching the worst. But what I see in Eliot is the beginning of the end in poetry. Between 1919 and now, there has been a lot of poetry that is a lot worse than this--pretty much all of the beat poets wrote worse stuff, IMO. But would any of that have been possible if not for Eliot, and those like him such as Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein? Undoubtedly the majority of poems written since 1919 have been worse than this. But what about the majority of poems written between the Renaissance and 1919? Were they worse or better? I think most of them were better--most that I've read, anyway.

The bulk of my favorite poetry was written in the 20th century. There was, of course, some unbelievable crap, but there were also some brilliant poets that followed. I'm not sure what you mean about poets like Eliot and Pound making the crap possible. Are you just suggesting they were responsible for lowering the poetic standards? I don't know about that. Perhaps the beats wanted to emulate Eliot and so degenerated the form in doing so, but there have been too many excellent poets since them to discount the century on their behalf.

Hmm.. That's actually a simile rather than an analogy, isn't it? Maybe I would be able to appreciate the comparison if you would be willing to explain it to me. What does "Streets that follow" mean? Arguments can follow, and people can follow streets, but what does it mean to say streets that follow? Follow what?

It is a simile, because it uses the word 'like' to compare two things. But, it is also an analogy, the definition of which is "a comparison between two things, typically on the basis of their structure and for the purpose of explanation or clarification." That stanza paints the image of two people walking "When the evening is spread out against the sky." The lazy cadence of the passage suggests a tone of directionlessness, so that the street behind them showing the meaningless distance they've come is becoming a sort of weight to bear. Looking back and seeing the progress they've made, and knowing it brought them no closer to a goal, is similar to a tedious argument. It is the same moment that comes when you are in a debate with someone who can't reason, when you pause and wonder if you can possibly gain anything from continuing the argument, and you "look back" at the course the debate has taken, winding like a path behind you, not getting anywhere. Does that make sense?

Hmm. I'm not sure I understand this. Was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock discovered in a private diary of T.S. Eliot's, and not intended for publication? I thought it was intended for a general audience. Is it appropriate for an author to fill his works with "inside" references that an audience would be incapable of grasping, without knowing the author personally (or, perhaps, without being the author, or perhaps, not even then)? Should intelligible communication not be an author's priority? Why does one write, then? Why show anybody?

I don't know anything about whether he intended to publish it or not. But that raises an interesting question. Would it make a difference? Isn't writing a poem with the audience at the front of your mind a bit secondhanded? For instance, while Rand undoubtedly wanted to share her ideas through her novels, she couldn't have written them with her audience dictating the word choice, the plot twists, and the tone. She must have known that some people would not get her novels, or that they would dismiss it, or what have you. But she wrote them for herself, and as a natural result of that the audience she would have wanted to appreciate it did. I'm in no way defending the intelligibility of "The Love Song", just stating that I don't think audience understanding should be a primary concern of the writer.

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"Content" is a broad term. What aspect of the content do you mean? Do you mean theme, philosophical message, what?

True, "content" isn't a very good word. I think I meant something more like theme. My intention was to highlight the idea that the "substance" of a work of art is more fundamental to its evaluation than the specific way in which it is implemented. But I haven't yet read The Art of Fiction, so that's one I need to add to my list.

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After reading the section on aethetics in "Ayn Rand Answers", I'll have to revise what I said earlier. I was mistaken in suggesting the Objectivist aethetic judgement is fundamentally focused on the projection of rational values. Rather, Ayn Rand seems to hold that art is the projection of values in general, and that therefore art can be good even if the values projected are irrational/evil. In other words, good art would consist in the skillful concretization of the artist's metaphysical value-judgments, regardless of whether those value-judgments are rational. In other other words, aesthetic evaluation is not ethical evaluation.

For example, AR was asked about the novel "Anna Karenina", which she says is the "most evil novel ever written." In her reply, she says

The questioner uses "evil" as if it were an esthetic judgment. It isn't; it's a moral judgment. I didn't say it's the worst novel esthetically because its theme is so evil. On the contrary, I said it's a good work of art (not great) for what it's preaching, but it's preaching evil. - Ayn Rand Answers, p. 205
Another relevant passage:

Q: In evaluating a work of art, does the sense of life portrayed have any weight? For example, is a work of art that inspires a rational man to achieve rational values greater than a work of art that brilliantly illustrates an improper sense of life?

AR: Yes, if their esthetic means are roughly equal. (You cannot measure to an inch which of two artists in a better stylist.) But assume that two artists are equally good stylistically, but one presents something great and inspiring, the other something bitter and malevolent. The first would be greater. But you must judge them esthetically first.

(p. 184)

Since we're talking about poetry here, I may as well include relevant parts for that as well:

Poetry is a combination of two arts: literature and music. Rhythm and rhyme, and the thought expressed, are the essence of poetry. (p.219)
Q: Who are your favorite poets?

AR: Generally, I'm not an admirer of poetry, and find it impossible to discuss. My reaction is based solely on sense of life. I have a few theories about it. My favorite poets are Alexander Blok, an untranslatable Russian whose sense of life is ghastly, but who is a magnificent poet, and Swinburne, who is also a magnificent poet with a malevolent sense of life. I like a few Rudyard Kipling poems very much, both in form and content. Strangely enough, I truly love "If". The modens made a bromide out of it. I've seen if framed and sold in the five-and-ten. If a poem can survive that, it's great. "If" has helped me sometimes in depressed moments, and I hope it does the same for you. I also like "When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted", which is a magnificent poem qua poetry. (p.220)

I couldn't really get much out of that, except that she likes a few poets.

Finally,

Q: What is the Objectivist view of free verse?

AR: That it's lower than free lunches.

Edited by Spano
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