Reading Outside the Box

Today is Wednesday, but I only discovered Booking Through Thursday this morning, so I’m answering last week’s prompt now:

What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? What (not counting school textbooks, though literature read for classes counts) was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory? And, did you like it? Did it stretch your boundaries? Did you shut it with a shudder the instant you were done? Did it make you think? Have nightmares? Kick off a new obsession?

The Waste Land and Other Poems, by T S Eliot

In terms of form, the poetry of T S Eliot was miles and miles outside my comfort zone. Whilst admiring the lyrical prose of writers such as Nabokov – and I suppose, to a certain extent, Fitzgerald –  I had always carried a sort of indifferent attitude towards poetry. I certainly didn’t appreciate it, but I didn’t detest it either. As a result, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed reading Eliot. I suppose I was surprised because I knew nothing at all about Modernist poetry. Eliot’s poems had a grimy and gritty and brutally honest quality that was new to me:

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells

So unlike the odes of Keats and Wordsworth. However, I didn’t like his well-known poems (The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the Waste Land) that much. Well, except for the last stanza of Prufrock; which I really liked:

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 lack
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

Portrait of a Lady, as I understand it, is about the dying relationship of a man and his older lover. I sort of detested the woman, with her meaningless flattery and pretentious air, but I also thought her situation was quite pitiful, and at times I sympathised with her:

Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no more remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.

But my favourite was Rhapsody on a Windy Night, with its rambling stream-of-consciousness and insomniac persona –

Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium

I think that has to be the most gripping metaphor ever written: midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium. And I love how he converses with the street-lamp: “Half-past one, the street lamp spluttered, the street lamp muttered, the street lamp said, “Regard that woman!”

In fact, I almost think I liked this poem because it reminded me of Virginia Woolf, particularly at times like this:

The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton
Stiff and white.
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap

And the olfactory imagery! He manages, so convincingly, to write about musty, old people smells –

The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars

So yes, as you can see, I quite enjoyed T S Eliot. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll be scouring the local library for anthologies any time soon. What I gained from Eliot was a newfound respect for poetry, and a feeling of having stretched my boundaries. Since then, I’ve crawled back into my comfort zone and plan on staying there for a while. I might, however, venture into older forms of poetry – I still haven’t read The Odyssey (on my shelf), and I’ve been eyeing Chaucer’s works for a while now.


2 thoughts on “Reading Outside the Box

  1. Goodness, I guess I’m not much of a poetry person. But then I’ve never read any Eliot either.

    Slow but sure is ok. we’re in no rush at readthenobels! :)

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