When I was a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop Donald Justice, esteemed poet and teacher threw a literary magazine in the trash in front of a roomful of aspiring poets saying: “This is devoted to the “long poem”—I hate long poems…” Imagine Jussi Bjorling singing a third of an opera. Think of Eliot stopping the “Wasteland” on page one. Eliot would have ended with Mrs. Equitone.
The lesson I took on that fair day in Iowa City is that taste is sometimes a jailer’s key. You better watch out. There are instructive moral possibilities that arise when poets resist their own habits of mind. Here I return to Mrs. Equitone. Think of Eliot stopping the “Wasteland” on page one. The poem would end here:
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.
One must be so careful these days. Eliot’s picture is of soothsayers and spiritual mediums. Talking to the dead became big business after the First World War. There were laws against it. It was all a bit like Prohibition. Think of seance speakeasies and you’ve got the picture. If you’re planning to see Mrs. Equitone the psychic you best not put your horoscope in the mail as you’ll be arrested for fraud.
As a portrait of a dreadful post-war sub-culture the lines above are superb. And loaded. Mrs. Equitone is part horse part gramophone. Yes, let’s call up our private dead.
If Eliot had stopped the “Wasteland” just there we’d have an occluded short poem without the strickened and collectivized nature of ruin that comes with war.
Ah but the poem, on page two:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frère!”
Sing the opera to the end and it’s about something extensively dramatic. The first world war is over and its survivors are collectively afflicted and trying rather desperately to rejoin the workaday world which won’t—can’t—sustain them. This is far better stuff than “one must be so careful these days…”
Why am I bothering with this, just now, early, over coffee, the day not yet a day?
I shall not be trapped by my own taste. As I grow older the industrious and developing soul can still stretch. I suppose this is a vow.