In this essay I will look at “The Waste Land” by T.S Eliot and Audre Lorde’s poetry. At first glance these two texts may seem to have a similar form of poetry, but on closer inspection one can see a clear distinction between Eliot’s narrative poetry and Lorde’s lyric. This essay shall analyse at how The Waste Land treats violence as non-preventable and non-correctable, while Lorde’s poetry treats it as an internalized phenomenon that needs to be realized and mitigated, with respect to their individual forms and contexts. Lorde’s lyric presents a more constructive view of violence with a possibility of change, unlike Eliot. I will also look at Eliot’s views on poetry in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and how those views don’t necessarily fit the rules that Lorde’s poetry is based on. His essay argues that the individual is a channel for tradition so that past can also interact with the present and that the good poet is one who can separate her/his individuality from her/his poetry.
Lyric is about the expression of the individual (“Narrative, Lyric, Drama”); a typical example could be Shakespeare’s ‘Fair Youth’ sonnets (1609). Lyric stems from the idea of the individual as separate from the community, but still the same as other people who form the community. Therefore though traditional lyric assumes an individual, it does not necessarily assume the probability of that individual being different from other ‘individuals’. It is traditionally written in a way that the reader can easily place herself/himself in the shoes of the ‘I’ (the poet) in the lyric and in cases where the lyric is addressed to some other person, the reader can easily replace that person with her/his own candidate. This replaceability tends to happen because many lyrics are unspecific in their descriptions and thus, leave a blank space that can be easily filled with a variety of people. As a result of this quality, and because lyric tends to directly speak to the reader, it is very relatable to its audience due to its form and its content.
Lorde’s lyric stems from a time after “The Waste Land”, by when the transition into a capitalist society (that was more focused on individualistic importance than the importance of a collective) had been completed to a much larger extent in America. Since capitalism depends on creating a culture of consumerism, it bolstered the idea of importance and hence freedom of the individual to choose. For consumerism to work people need to believe that they are worth the money they invest in consumer goods and by extension, if they are worth it, then that would mean they are important as individuals. Also Lorde wrote in an age that saw a considerable amount of change concerning social attitudes towards various groups that are discriminated against, which lends to the greater emphasis and power the individual has in her poetry. This way Lorde adapts the traditional form of lyric into one that brings out the differences in individuals, but is still relatable. In doing so, she conforms to the idea of adhering to tradition (of lyric being relatable) as mentioned in Eliot’s essay, but also lets her individuality and the experiences particular to certain oppressed groups of people flow in her poetry.
Conversely, narrative poetry is about telling a story; a typical example could be Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1475). Narrative poetry stems from the idea that living in a collective social environment is the norm. Its traditional form used metered verse that often rhymed. Some of the rhyming couplets in The Canterbury Tales only clumsily rhyme and seem to have been forced together. This gives a certain sense of a forced/pretend harmony on the level of form which was also present in the socio-economic background of the text where the means of production were artisanal and thus requiring the people to get along well (at least on the surface) with one another. This is the kind of tradition that “The Waste Land”, being a narrative poem flows from and also the tradition it laments that has gone to waste. “The Waste Land”, however, unlike traditional narrative poetry, does not try to pretend that it fits together within itself, allowing the readers to see the fragmented nature of its reflection of society. It was written after the First World War and never before had the cost of war been so fully destructive in leading millions to their deaths due to the huge technological advancements and industrialization. Also this was an age where people were moving away from public spaces into private ones, e.g. they could listen to music by themselves on a gramophone or a radio and no longer had to go out and absorb music as a collective. This move into private spheres in a way lent itself to the fragmented nature of society presented in Eliot’s poetry, since people were getting less involved with others and living more by themselves.
“The Waste Land” treats violence as a part of the society it reflects; the poem is littered with violent construction of poetic lines:
“My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised ‘a new start.’
I made no comment. What should I resent?”
The sentences are violently cut by space and picked up again with a capital letter and as if they were a new sentence not another part of the previous one. And the lines are broken by the recurring period, resulting in a continuous effect of fragmentation. The content itself is brutal, but presented with the nonchalance of a laundry list. The reader is left looking out through the victim’s empty eyes, whose heart is being crushed by her feet so she feels no resentment against her violator, who is promising a new start as if it is easy enough to salvage her heart and put it back in her breast. The act of rape has been undermined into being called an ‘event’, as if it were not murder resulting in dead heart and the silence of its victim. The only ‘emotion’ here comes out in the weeping of her violator, causing the focus on the consequences of violence to shift from the victim to the perpetrator. This incident makes it look like the violence present in the society is irredeemable precisely because the consequence is so great that the victim is already dead. Therefore, even if there is “a new start” it would not help, but one will not hear the victims saying that because they have been emptied from inside. If the only emotion left is that of the perpetrator, what use is the new change?
The text perhaps treats violence in such a way because it was written post First World War, where violence meant death most of the time and death is not correctable, so the victim of this violence is the perpetrator (and the families, whom Eliot does not really mention) who killed in the name of his country and has to live with the act of killing in the form of emotional and mental disorders. It is hard for the reader to feel sorry enough for the violator to think about working towards a new start for people who violate grossly and claim to suffer because of it. Since once the violent act has murdered its victim there is no use in attempting to fix it, one wonders if one can prevent the act altogether. One may assume that Eliot would prefer if he could prevent violence, because “The Waste Land” ends with ‘Shantih Shantih Shantih’ which means peace and so one can assume that peace is what he would like to witness in the society he was living in. This peace is achieved in Part Five of the poem when the demons, humans and gods interpret the word ‘DA’ of thunder in their own way through conscious self-reflection. However, for Eliot this consciousness has been lost among people in his time; humans have become “neither/Living nor dead,” because they have become “human engines” with “automatic” body parts (the hand in this part of the poem). Since, machinery is mechanical and cannot by definition have a ‘conscience’ then people cannot actually self-reflect in order to find out what they need to do to achieve peace, or even realize that they should be working towards peace in the first place. Therefore, Eliot’s version of violence can be interpreted as non-preventable and non-correctable, at least in the context in which he wrote “The Waste Land”.
Lorde’s lyric also treats violence as a part of the society, but in a more internalized sense, so that the violence isn’t as explicit at the surface level as it is in “The Waste Land”. She brings out this internalized violence that many people in her society took for granted as a social custom, by taking on the perspectives of the victims. Lorde’s sentences too are cut up into uneven lines, but in a way that is musical/lyrical rather than fragmented, e.g. in “From the House of Yemanjá”:
My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
before she fixed our dinner.
One reason for this harmonious quality is that she does not capitalize the first letter of every line, only the first letter of the sentence unlike Eliot. This non-capitalization gives a visual effect of flowing sentences. Despite the seeming cohesion the reader understands that there is violence in what she is talking about, i.e. the image of ‘cooking up’ people. This violence beneath the seemingly flowing lines of poetry could reflect the larger apparently stable society Lorde was living in, which is teeming with violence once one looks deeper as evidenced by the multiple references to violent acts happening around her, in her poetry.
In these lines, she talks about two faces of her mother that is repeated and elaborated into one face being “dark and rich and hidden” in the other “pale as a witch / yet steady and familiar” face. The phrase “dark and rich and hidden” could be representative of the suppression of African American people, causing them to seem “hidden” from the society and a comment on them being ‘rich’ in their culture, personalities and passions as any other race. The other face seems to represent the white/pale ancestry of her mother which is “steady and familiar” because it’s been in power for a long time, the term “witch” suggests unfair means used in staying in power. The phrase “cooked up” suggests that the cook is majorly altering the ‘raw’ state of whatever she’s cooking by following a recipe where “her [emphasis mine] daughters” are meant to turn into simply ‘girls’. This change from being someone’s daughter into a nondescript “girl” projects that one’s individuality along with one’s relations need to be shed in order to fit into this recipe of what makes a girl according to the society, which is represented by the pale side of her mother. Since one knows that the ingredients are human beings who come in all shapes and sizes, not only differing in their physical but also mental dispositions this act of cooking up humans using one recipe is comparable to the bed of Procrustes, where attempting to fit everyone into the same box often leads to the death of the individual. And the fact that this poem ends in the lines “[I am] … where day and night shall meet / and / not be one” shows that the narrator’s ‘darkness’ will only ever meet the recipe’s ideal ‘paleness’, but that it will never be ‘one’; her identity will never conform to society’s expectations. Thus she brings out the violence of forcing social conformity within a family, a group that’s supposed to nurture one, that it becomes more important than ‘fixing dinner’; more important than basic sustenance.
Lorde also pulls out the extreme extent to which brutal physical violence towards suppressed social groups is internalized in a white patriarchal society that leads to further internal destruction in “Power”:
they had dragged her 4'10'' black Woman's frame
over the hot coals
of four centuries of white male approval
until she let go
the first real power she ever had
and lined her own womb with cement
to make a graveyard for our children.
I have not been able to touch the destruction
A police man shoots a ten year old boy because of his colour, and the perpetrator of this unforgivably, innocence ripping, emotionless act is set free due to the eleven white men on the jury. The only black woman on the jury is “convinced” under the burning pressure of “white male approval”. The narrator says that she let go of “the first real power she ever had”, because the barrier for her was the social construct built over centuries by white men, which she could have fought with her “real power”, the ‘realness’ of which came from her legal position, but she did not. In not fighting she might have saved herself socially, but ossified the possibility of saving the children of her colour from such brutal deaths and from the social suffrage, for the future generation, that results from the violent silence of the current one. This murder showed how much power her people have and how they are not willing to give themselves up for their children and their cause thus they are the ones living “without loyalty or reason”. The narrator has “not been able to touch the destruction within” her because this “destruction” resulting from the social acceptance of this violence on an innocent child could shatter her.
Thus, the nature of violence that Lorde describes is internalized at both social and individual levels that needs to be realized by people in order to work against its power. Her description of violence portrays a huge violation not just something ‘rude’; it is the violence that rips people apart. The violence she describes can be overcome, because people have the power to empathize with the people they or others violate and thus, bring in change. Because of Lorde’s use of lyric the reader can empathize with the narrators of the poem and she gives her voice to all the ones that have been silenced: dead boys; suppressed women and oppressed sexual expressions. She recognizes the political, historical and social forces working through people and tries to address them, and urges people to break out of the prison cells society made them build for their selves; to not to line their wombs with cement, to not ossify themselves at the command of society. She believes in shouting out.
Lorde’s poetry works as a better call to action than Eliot’s, partly because he may not really be trying to do so and partly because he does not allow the reader to identify enough with him or any of his characters, unlike Lorde. In his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, he says “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates”. Now the idea of what perfection means is debatable but if we think of perfection as effectiveness of poetry on people, then Lorde’s poetry despite being personal, or perhaps because of it, has the potential to affect people greatly. She does have a historical sense that one can hear the echoes of in her poetry that manages to be personal and also a medium for channelling the suppressed voices of her ancestors and of people like her. Both these texts provide separate views on violence through their form, content, context and views which have been shaped by different historical and social forces behind them. Eliot’s view is more of an observation and is to an extent left at that, whereas Lorde’s view is a dissection of the power structures she’s surrounded by and she brings focus on the hidden internalization of violence.
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