Meaning and Abstraction
Eliot's poetry is not a question of meaning in the first place. The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said—in the resonance of the signifier, the echoes of its archetypes, the ghostly associations haunting its grains and textures, the stealthy, subliminal workings of its unconscious. Meaning was for the birds, or perhaps for the petit bourgeoisie. Eliot was a primitivist as well as a sophisticate, a writer who made guerrilla raids on the collective unconscious. For all his intellectualism, he was averse to rationality. Meaning in his poetry is like the mysterious figure who walks beside you in The Waste Land, vanishing when you look at it straight.
This points at Eliot's real debt to the French Symbolist poets, such as Mallarmé, which is something that doesn't get mentioned by too many of the high priest's acolytes; one presumes many such would rather portray Eliot as emerging like Athena, virginal from Zeus' brow. The messiness of the man's life, his occasional critical reversals, and the difficulties around some of his opinions get minimized. Eliot was a complex character, a neo-elitist who proclaimed that the function of his many reviews and essays was to educate and elevate the unwashed masses towards a better understanding and appreciation of High Art. But he also enjoyed gutter-level humor, a good joke, and loved Marx Bros. movies.
Eliot himself did not always help matters: he could be quite deliberately obscure about his own work, even contradictory. He was consistent, however, and to me this again smacks of the Symbolists, that his keynote poem The Waste Land, hailed for its disjunctive collage method which was one of the new techniques of Modernism, wasn't about anything but being a poem: The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. (Tradition and the Individual Talent, from 1920) Eliot responded to critics who thought The Waste Land was about the Lost Generation, the disillusioned post-WW I generation which felt the world was coming apart at its seems, he stated, I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention. Yet the disjunctions in the poem have been pointed to again and again as the utter essence of Modernism, as a reflection of the disjunctions and fragmentation of modern life, as a representation of what it's like to live in such a confusing and shredded world. The poem has also been said to reflect the early Modern generation's nostalgia for a world in which things made more sense, could be more clearly understood, social roles were known, and in which we were the masters of technology, rather than the other way round.
The Waste Land was not hailed as a masterpiece by every critic at the time, despite what present-day Eliot acolytes would have us believe. Conrad Aiken, in my opinion one of the greatest reviewers of all time, commented in his review: What we feel is that Mr. Eliot has not wholly annealed the allusive material, has left it unabsorbed. Aiken did believe that the poem succeeded by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations. (New Republic, February 7, 1923)
And thus we see in The Waste Land, in which its method as well as its style has been oft imitated, one of the origins of an important Modernist trend that has reached its full flowering and become quite problematic in these post-Modern days: puzzle-poems, hidden meanings, and obscurity merely for the sake of being obscure.
I'm not saying that Eliot intended his poetry to be an obscure puzzle, but since so much ink has been spent on "decoding" his meanings, and since so many folks still worship him as the greatest Modernist, that creates an influence beyond any of Eliot's poems or intentions. It has become a trope, and some contemporary poets do nothing but create puzzles to be decoded.
Oddly, many of these same critics (and poets) who laud Eliot's "meaningless" poem also condemn his later poetry, such as The Four Quartets, as weaker poetry, somehow. Personally, The Four Quartets are my favorite work of Eliot's, the poems of his which I re-read most often, and which have the deepest meaning for me. (Ah, but meaning itself is the problem for these acolytes, ennit?) I make no claim to be an Eliot scholar (although I'm not ignorant of the scholarship). Yet the Quartets (and their overt structural connections to music composition) have occasionally been interpreted as a late-life return to some kind of spirituality or faith, as though that were a failing, a mark of senility or regression. Ignoring of course that Eliot was always a religious, and that his poetry was never anti-religious.
One suspects sometimes that the reason the Quartets are dismissed by some of the dry-stick academics is mostly because they view Eliot's late-life expression of something other than dry-stick conventionality as a personal betrayal of Eliot's own self-admitted dry-stickness. Their own acedia, so resonant within The Waste Land, cannot move past itself. But I think Eliot himself did move beyond Modernist acedia, eventually, and The Four Quartets are evidence of that.
A personal note about The Four Quartets:
When I was still in music school in my early 20s, I was in the recording studio at WCBN-FM making a tape piece when I heard the news that one of my closest mentors in music composition, George Cacioppo, had just died. The last thing he had been re-reading that week was Four Quartets—the book was next to his hospital bed—which I had also been re-reading earlier that week. I found the synchronicities meaningful. I felt quite close to Eliot that week, and the possibility, taken on intuition rather than scholarship, that he himself had found some measure of solace in his Four Quartets, after all the years of arid acedia brought on in the wake of The Waste Land. I'm sure some schlar would be quick to shoot that all down, but I trust my intuition.
And after all, one aspect of poetry is that it can evoke precisely such transpersonal experiences. Which is what makes it an artform rather than merely engineering.
The tape piece I had been making that night evolved into an elegy for my late mentor, and was one of many presented at a memorial concert in his honor, later that month. Here it is: elegy for George.
A bit more now on Aiken:
As a reviewer and poet himself, it was always hard to pull the wool over Aiken's eyes, I believe. He also saw D.H. Lawrence's strengths and weaknesses pretty clearly, for example. Aiken had a good sense of human psychology. HIs criticisms of Eliot were prescient in that they were echoed by later scholars, and in some of Stephen Spender's criticisms.
Aiken's own poetry is unjustly neglected these days, with only a Selected Poems currently in print and regularly available—perhaps because his poetry is musical-lyrical, openly so, which is unfashionable in these days when intellect and abstraction are paramount—but also perhaps because Aiken's poetry is also deeply psychological poetry, and makes people uncomfortable. He was perhaps overly influenced by Freud—but among the Moderns, who wasn't? His magnificent Collected Short Stories would be legacy enough, had he not also written plays, novels, and memoirs, in addition to poetry. A lot of Aiken's stories are deeply insightful. I've always been puzzled why people give Raymond Carver so much credit for developing psychological character studies in the short story form, when Aiken had already done so. At least a few of Aiken's stories were made into short films, and I believe that the film made of Silent Snow, Secret Snow, one of Aiken's best-known short stories, aired as an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone or Night Gallery TV series, I don't remember which.
My understanding was that Aiken and Eliot knew each other, and were friends. I don't find Aiken's accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses in Eliot's poetry to diminish Eliot's place in the canon; that place is secure. What re-reading Aiken's criticism brings out, though, is that sense of what's wrong with a lot of the Eliot scholarship since, which by contrast lacks Aiken's insight into the poetry.
So it is interesting that the post-Modern children of Eliot, currently in the ascendant, laud the abstraction, disjunction, and collage effects in Eliot's most influential poetry. Probably the reason Aiken's poetry is at nadir is the same reason why the Four Quartets are dismissed by the acolytes: too much music, too much continuity, too much meaning in the poems. The poems that actually mean something, that aren't just playing with words, that aren't abstract to the point of obscurantism, are currently unfashionable. (Of course, fashions change, and this too no doubt will pass.)
For my own part, I don't find abstraction to be inherently bad in poetry just as I don't find meaning in poetry to be inherently good. Those are moral judgments, not poetic ones. These don't really have anything to do with the poem, but with what one prefers to discover in any poem—i.e. these are personal preferences. If you believe that poetry either must mean something, or should not, those are both moral positions that have nothing to do with poetry: because poetry as an artform has always been abstract and figurative. The truth is, as Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, a poem can never be completely abstract because it is made of ordinary words, which are the signifiers and carriers of meaning. A poem can never be completely abstract because it is made of language. But neither does a poem need to mean the same thing to every reader, as if it were an engineering diagram to be read, or a puzzle to be solved.
Poetry, because of its compactness and its exaltation, is always at its best when it contains many layers of meaning and abstraction, so that one is constantly finding new things in the poem every time one re-reads it. If you can read it just once, know exactly what it says, and throw it away never having to re-read it, then how is it different from a prose essay? Argument is for essay—evocation is for poetry. A poem elicits a meaning in the reader—not necessarily the same meaning as it had to the author, even—because it invites it, it evokes it, it calls it forward. Not because it imposes one fixed meaning, one fixed interpretation, on the reader. That is what "communication" means, and far too many poets nowadays think that that is all that poetry is: communication. If you want to communicate, use the phone. That is what prose does very well, and is supposed to do: communicate. Of course, a great deal of poetry nowadays really is prose, just broken up into odd lines on the page. One finds very little music at times. (As Aiken once wrote, music in poetry means much more than meter and rhyme.) That the average reader, including many under-experienced poets, might confuse prose and poetry nowadays is thus perfectly understandable. But that explains—it does not excuse.
I think it unwise to get stuck in some false polarity between meaning and abstraction, although many poet-critics do indeed seem to cling to that polarization. I think a poem is a rather more holistic enterprise, intended to be read, intended to connect to the reader and evoke in them some experience, some sensation, some presence. A poem ought to be an experience in itself—even a more abstract experience, say, than an adventure movie—rather than be about an experience. And even poems such as The Waste Land which do not immediately parse themselves clearly to one's intellectual comprehension or rational understanding, can still pack a gut-punch. Meaning and abstraction can and do coexist in poetry. A poem doesn't always have to be immediately and instantly understood to get under your skin, and become a memorable experience. Something slips through, and disturbs your universe—the experience of being disturbed by art is a poetic experience. Sometimes understanding does come, but it might come much later.