Book Review

Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land

Image of Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 512

If you like modern poetry, or simply a good biography, Young Eliot is the book for you.”

In Young Eliot, biographer Robert Crawford has delivered the definitive account of how Thomas Stearns Eliot became T. S. Eliot, the most important English-language poet since Walt Whitman. Best of all, the story reads like a novel about that most productive period in Western literature, the early 1900s, as the reader follows the education, both formal and otherwise, of Eliot from fledgling poet to emerging literary icon.

For Eliot fans who know only casually that “he was from St. Louis” and that “he went to Harvard and then settled in England,” this biography provides the chance to see how arduous was his journey from typical undergrad to polished poet. Indeed, he might not have made a breakthrough at all without the patronage of the great English philosopher Bertrand Russell (who in turn helped himself to the sexual favors of Eliot’s wife Vivien).

One of the surprises to the uninitiated reader is how long it took for Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to win recognition: years. Surprising, too, is how long it was after “Prufrock” until Eliot produced another of his great works, again years. But Eliot was creating a new kind of poetry, much more cerebral than that of his predecessors, and Crawford does an excellent job of detailing Eliot’s gestation period from his days at Harvard to his completing “The Waste Land,” arguably his crowning achievement. (Some would give the laurels to “Four Quartets.”)

Perhaps the most interesting parts of this wholly interesting book are about Eliot’s education, which included doctoral work at Harvard, a year at Oxford, and reading, reading, reading; not to mention Eliot’s sojourn in France and then England just when both countries were in a literary ferment not seen before or since, and names like Proust and Joyce and Woolf were on the lips of the cognoscenti as heralds of a new era in literature. They were right, and before long Eliot’s name was on their lips as well.

If you like modern poetry, or simply a good biography, Young Eliot is the book for you. Even if you’re not sure about the poetry part of that recommendation, consider heeding the words of Prufrock himself: “Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”/Let us go and make our visit.“

You’ll be glad you did.

Black Coffee

2007-03-29 09.13.14

The young waitress, bottle blonde, was back again, “Made up your mind yet?” She sounded impatient and indifferent at the same time.

Just coffee, I told her. Black. No cream.

“I need something stronger,” Jenny said. “Do you serve wine?”

The waitress nodded, chewed gum, checked her nails. Red.

“Chardonnay,” Jenny said. “House is okay.”

The waitress, wordless, went away. Jenny studied the wall at my back, her solemn hazel eyes fixed on a pastel wallpaper. I studied Jenny studying the wall at my back. We were the only customers in the place.

“What?” she said, meeting my eyes at last, defiant, distraught.

“Nothing.”

“Well, it’s hard.”

I said I knew.

“No, you don’t. It’s not your mother.”

I said I knew whose mother it was.

Jenny went back to staring at the wall.

The waitress brought our drinks. She put the wine in front of me, the coffee – with cream – in front of Jenny, and left the bill on the edge of the table. The wine was a blush, not Chardonnay, but when I started to call the waitress back, Jenny stopped me. “Never mind,” she said.

Swapping drinks, I nodded toward the waitress. “Hope Miss Congeniality there doesn’t depend on tips for a living.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing,” I said.

Jenny sipped her wine. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said, a pink flush rising at her throat.

“Well, go back over there and tell them that.” I nodded toward a big gray building across the street.

“I just can’t,” she said, sipping again.

“Look, if you can’t, you can’t. They’ll understand. You won’t be the first who couldn’t do it.”

“I don’t see how anybody could do it.”

“I could do it. I could do it because it ought to be done. When a thing needs doing, it’s best to go on and do it.”

“I’m not like you.”

“Then don’t do it.”

“I’d hate myself if I did it.”

“Then don’t do it, for Christ’s sake. Go on over there and tell `em.”

“I’ll finish my wine first.” She sipped again. “Maybe if I drink enough of this I can do it.”

“Do it and then drink,” I said. “Then you’ll have a reason to drink.”

“I have a reason now. Will you order me another glass?”

“I read somewhere that memory and judgment are the first things clouded by alcohol.”

“Memory would be okay,” she said.

“Suit yourself.” I started to call for the waitress.

“Wait!” Jenny said. “You’re right. I need a clear head for this.” She pushed the glass away. It was still nearly full. “What time is it?”

“Two-thirty.” I signaled toward a big white-faced clock on a nearby wall. You couldn’t miss it.

“How long did he say he’d be there?”

“Till three.”

She made a face. “Will you tell him for me?”

“Tell him what?”

“You know,” she said.

“No, I don’t know.”

She reached for my coffee. “Mind?”

I pushed the cup and saucer toward her. The cream, too. I didn’t use the stuff.

Stirring in the cream, she said, “It’s for the best, don’t you think?”

“What I think’s not important here,” I said.

She sipped the coffee, now a caramel-brown. “I can’t do it. She’s my mother.”

I reached for her wine. “All the more reason you should do it,” I said. “Should want to do it.”

“Was it this way with your mother?”

“No.”

“See.”

“Proves nothing.”

She shrugged. “You’re right. What time is it?”

I finished her wine while glancing at the clock. “Two minutes later than when you asked before.”

“Don’t be smart at a time like this.”

“Don’t be dumb at a time like this.”

She made a face again and heaved a sigh. “Okay. You’re right. I’ll do it.”

She started to get up. I thought I saw tears. “You sure?”

“I’m sure. As sure as I’ll ever be.” She got on up, smoothing wrinkles from her navy blue skirt as she rose.

I stood up, too. I left enough money on the table to cover the bill and give the waitress a good tip.

# # #

Author’s Note

I wrote this story at the beach during spring break a while back. The first draft came easily, but I felt that something was missing. I went over it again, adding words of color here and there, and that seemed to give it a fuller, more satisfying dimension. The story was soon published in an NYC literary magazine. It also won a storytelling award and became the lead story in a collection of my short stories and poems titled Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. The book can be found on Amazon at (shortened link): http://goo.gl/hhnRzP

Checking outquestion marks

Do you really want it that badly?

Used your debit card lately to buy something in a store?

I tried yesterday, but the store began closing before I could answer all the questions that pop up after you swipe your card. I had started at noon

The first dozen or so were child’s play, questions like:

“Do you want cash back?”
Yes, but only if you’re giving it away.

“Is $3,590.23 the correct amount?”
Only if the clerk is holding a gun on me.

“Would you like to donate to ISIS today?”
No, thanks. I gave at the office.

“Are you having a nice day?”
Well, I feel more like I do now than I did when I got here. You figure it out.

Seems that every time I go to a store these days, still more irksome questions have been added to the grilling you must undergo to make a debit-card purchase.

Haven’t these merchants ever heard that time is money?

Worse, the procedure seems different at each store, and you can’t complete a debit-card purchase if you don’t answer all the questions correctly. Get half way through, make a mistake, you cancel the sale and have to start over.

There is no right answer anyhow to “When did you stop beating your wife?”

The customer who had been in front of me in line said she had been trying to check out since last Monday. She showed me a sweater she had begun knitting while waiting her turn.

The guy right behind me said that when his turn comes, he just dials 911.

The woman behind him said the Suicide Hotline might be a better bet. She had been working a New York Times crossword puzzle while waiting and was nearly through!

What happened to the good old days when you simply handed over cash and went quickly on your merry way? Even the Geneva Accords require only three answers: your name, rank, and serial number. But get a look at what I had to contend with:

“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood?”
Beats me, Bubba. The closest I get to wildlife these days is a nature show on TV, though I did date a kinky little blonde once – but wait, that’s a story for another time. Besides, my wife might read this (and she’s a brunette).

“Did you flush after using the store’s bathroom?”
I remember washing my hands; does that count?

“Who’s on third?”
Not even Abbot and Costello could figure that one out.

“Who killed Cock Robin?”
I don’t know – but it was not me. No, wait; it was not I.

“One train leaves Jersey City at 4:05 p.m. headed to Atlanta. Another leaves Atlanta going to Jersey City at the same time. Which train will reach Chattanooga before the moon comes over the mountain?”
Hey, I could not solve word problems when I was in high school, and my algebraic skills have not improved with age. Besides, I majored in English. In fact, the last time I used algebra was on the final exam. So why, for crying out loud, is it still in every school’s curriculum?

The next screen was the last straw: “What do women want?”
I know when I’m beaten; Solomon in all his wisdom could not answer that one.

I hit “cancel” and pulled out my wallet. Deep in its recesses, I found a $20 bill that had been there since my retirement party last century. Mad money. Good name for it.

“Here,” I told the clerk. “Keep the change.” I just wanted to get out of there.

“You have no change coming,” she said. “The bill is exactly $20.”

I held aloft a very small bag containing over-the-counter allergy pills. “For this?” I asked, incredulous.

She shrugged and said, “It’s on sale.”

“Lucky me,” I replied.

###

togt

Alone

You might want to sit down for this.

Ready?

Here goes: I have concluded that we human beings are alone in the universe.

Sorry. I thought you were ready. The smelling salts are on the table beside you.

As I was saying: I believe that we Earthlings are by our lonesome in the big, wide universe.

A-l-o-n-e.

Out in the cold.

Odd man out.

Up the creek without a paddle.

Blued and tattooed. Get my drift?

Yes, I know what Carl Sagan told us: The famous astronomer and famous author famously declared that “The universe is so vast that the law of averages makes it impossible that Earth could be the only inhabited planet.”

Impossible?

Well, here’s a good question for the late Mr. Sagan (who by the way, also believed in reincarnation, so who knows? Maybe he can give us an answer, after all): where’s the evidence to back up that statement?

Never mind. The facts speak, and speak loudly, for themselves.

Space probe after space probe has sent back the same forlorn report: “There’s nobody out here. And there’s no sign that anybody’s been here.”

No remains of old campfires.

No wagon tracks or hoof prints.

And perhaps most telling of all: no litter.

Wait! It gets worse.

We have searched the extraterrestrial universe high and low, in precincts far and near, but we haven’t found life of any kind anywhere, not even a solitary single-cell amoeba. Not one. No sign of plant life either, though we all have seen that crabgrass and wild blackberry can grow anywhere.

Good thing old Carl is not around anymore to hear this, but where extraterrestrial life is concerned, the point is clear: the law of averages has been repealed.

Imagine that. We Earthlings are exempt from the venerable Law of Averages! Amazing when you consider that statistics has been used to prove so much else that seemed, well, at least improbable: a World Series championship for the Chicago Cubs, a pardon for O.J. Simpson, parallel lines that actually do meet.

But us? No. Where the old L of A is concerned, we are null and void, given the ‘don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you” treatment. I haven’t felt so left out since I couldn’t get a date for the senior prom. I couldn’t get one for the Junior prom, either, but these are stories for another time.

But any way you slice it, we Earthlings are TOGT: The Only Game in Town.

Look, if it’s any consolation, I was just as surprised as you are to find out that we are IT!

Even after Mariner and all the other space probes came up empty-handed, I thought for sure that the Hubble Telescope would catch somebody, or something, somewhere, sneaking out to fetch the morning newspaper or dashing to a nearby Heaven-Eleven for a last-minute quart of milk or loaf of bread.

But, full disclosure, it’s not as if we, or at least I, didn’t have fair warning. Both my Uncle Zeke and Aunt Nelly maintained that space exploration was a colossal waste of time. They never even believed that we had landed men on the moon.

“It was staged in the desert in Arizona,” Uncle Zeke insisted.

“I think it was a Hollywood sound stage,” said Aunt Nelly. “But same difference.”

Now I admit that my uncle and aunt held extreme views on everything, not just space exploration. Forget intelligent life on other planets, Uncle Zeke and Aunt Nelly didn’t believe there was intelligent life outside the South.

But I think it was my friend Crybaby Martin who came up with the best explanation. (His name is actually C.B. Martin, C.B. for Charles Bryan, but, well, like our current lachrymose Speaker of the U.S. House John Boehner, he cries easily, over nothing, thus the nickname Crybaby, though Crybaby is from South Carolina, not Ohio.)

Crybaby, it seems, stumbled onto the truth after reading that the famous Carl Sagan was not only an astronomer, author, astrophysicist, and director of the Laboratory of Planetary Studies at Cornell University; he was also an exobiologist.

Having never run across the word “exobiologist,“ Crybaby looked it up. It means the study of extraterrestrial life.

“Well,” said Crybaby, laughing for once instead of weeping, “if there ain’t no extraterrestrial life, then Professor Sagan was a professor of a field of study that doesn’t even exist.”

A logical conclusion by Crybaby Martin is itself against the Law of Averages, but, by golly, I think he hit the nail on the head.

There. Feeling better now?

Well, give it time. It’s been my experience that these things take time.

###

Beach Daze (They’re baaaack!)


Fun in the sun at Surfside Beach, SC by Robert S. Donovan via flickrIn case you’re emerging from a coma over the last couple of months and somehow missed the change, it’s the tourist season again. The signs are everywhere – but, alas, mostly here at the beach.

Gone are the days, for a while at least, when I could walk on the beach with my dog ’Dro (short for Pedro) and meet up with no one but myself.

Good place for doing that.

The late, great Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote memorably that on a back road in Georgia at night, you could ask yourself a question and get an honest answer.

In South Carolina, a beach walk on a winter’s day is your best bet. Ranks right up there with truth serum.

But my next solitary beach walk of any season will have to wait. The beaches are thronged with tourists from all over, and ’Dro is not particular about where he cocks a leg. Good citizen that I am, I carry a plastic bag for his other business, but even No. 2 is best conducted without an audience, especially of strangers. So, for the time being, Dro and I are constrained to walk near the beach, not on it.

But that’s not to say that our alternative routes are without their compensations. For instance, all those license plates in parking lots along the strand: Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico, Georgia, West Virginia, Ohio, New Jersey, Maryland, Texas, Alabama, Connecticut, Michigan, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Illinois, District of Columbia, Indiana, Colorado, New York, Florida, Utah, Japan — just kidding on that last one, but I did see Ontario.)

By my count, that’s nearly half of the 50 states in the union! And I probably missed a few. (Dro is nodding his head yes as I write this, but I have apologized again and again for forgetting to bring his treats on our walk.)

Besides the various states, there’s all that other stuff we put on our vehicles, identifiers of all kinds. The owners of these cars obviously love their alma mater (Auburn, William & Mary, Washington and Lee, Wake Forest, Southeastern University, NYU, etc.), their school teams (Tar Heels, Bulldogs, Buckeyes, Crimson Tide, Wildcats, Vols, Longhorns, Cavaliers, Gators, Tigers, Spartans, to name a few), their country (the U.S. of A., of course), their children (“Young genius on board”), their grandchildren (“Ask me about my grandkids”), their occupation (nurse, engineer, Marine, you-name-it), their causes…

Wait a minute; Dro is petitioning for my attention. Yes, Dro, of course, they love their pets! And, no, I won’t ever again forget the treats. Promise.

I realize that Dro and I are seeing only one slice of Americana, the segment of the population that can: 1) afford a beach vacation, and 2) chose the beach instead of, say, skiing in Vermont. So the artifacts here are decidedly middle class and upward (or downward, if you insist), but nonetheless interesting, at least to a man walking a sulking dog.

The ubiquitous peace sign, a throwback to the ’70s, is still with us. More au courant are concerns for the environment: “Lights out; sea turtles dig the dark;” devotees of biking: “Share the road;” the occasional contrarian: “I’d rather be fishing;” and the dog-lovers, bless their hearts: “I am an animal shelter volunteer” and “All my children have paws.”

Dro liked that last one, apparently unaware that it might include cats.

Of interest, too, is the self-promotion on the license plates of many of the states. New York calls itself The Empire State. New Mexico proclaims itself The Land of Enchantment. North Carolina boasts that it was First in Flight. Florida is still the Sunshine State. And mountainous Utah encourages us to Live Elevated, the awkwardness of which suggests that it was a reluctant compromise after wiser heads nixed the obvious first choice: Live High.

And let’s not overlook the so-called “message” plates: the self-accused UNKOUTH, the fun-loving JOYRYDN, the proprietary MYCAR, and my favorite, TXT L8R.

My least favorite, perhaps was a bumper sticker saying, “Your village called; their idiot is missing.”

Sonofagun! I didn’t think they even knew I was gone.

“Did you, Dro?”

Wipe that smile off your face, dawg.

###

  • Image: Fun in the sun at Surfside Beach, SC by Robert S. Donovan via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

A Majority of One

You be tMajcovresizedhe jury. You be the judge.

All hell breaks loose in a small Georgia town when religion clashes with the Constitution over book censorship in the school classroom.

Not all religious fanatics come from the Middle East. America has its own, home-grown variety.

 Loved this book…riveting and surprising. A strong insight into what our society could become if we continue to label one another. Robert Lamb’s best novel yet. A must read!” ~Lydia Taylor, Amazon review

“This is one of the best books I have ever read.” ~Gail Leverett Stelling

 

Who wrote that?

Songwriters

I’m convinced that songwriters are the Rodney Dangerfields of popular music. Name any popular hit song of the last 50 years and ask your friends who wrote it. The most likely response will be, “Duh?” Like Dangerfield, the late king of one-liners (“I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out”), songwriters get no respect.

Why? Beats me. People just seem to pay no attention to who wrote something, no matter what it is.

Scout’s honor: as he cut my hair, my barber, a news junkie, used to tell me all about this or that story he had just read in the local newspaper. Often it was one I had written. My byline was on it. In bold type. He never made the connection – even when I said, “Yeah, I wrote that.” He’d go right on telling me the story, my story! I never called him on it. After all, he was wielding scissors and I was unarmed. But he’s no longer my barber, and poetic justice has allowed me to forget his name.

But what is it with bylines anyhow? Even I, a former newspaperman, overlook them at times. The other night, I was reading a story in National Geographic that was so good that, halfway in, I went back to the first page to see who had written it. No wonder I liked it; the author was Garrison Keillor.

But I have strayed from the subject of songwriters, which has been nibbling at my subconscious lately every time I find myself admiring some particularly good lyrics.Here, for instance, in a 1937 recording of “I Must Have That Man,”* by the one and only Billie Holiday, is a couplet, one of a string, that even Shakespeare might have envied:

Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields

”I need that person much worse ‘n just bad;
I’m half alive and it’s drivin’ me mad.
He’s only human: if he’s to be had,
I must have that man
.”

Who wrote the song?

Jimmy McHugh, a songwriter who was a legend in his own time (July 10, 1894 – May 23, 1969). He’s been dead for nearly half a century, but if you have ever lamented the lack of eloquence to say to your Significant Other “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” or “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” you can thank Mrs. McHugh’s son Jimmy for putting your tongue-tied feelings into immortal words and even setting them to music.

For three decades, from the 1920s to the 1950s, McHugh, working with a variety of fellow tunesmiths – not least the equally talented Dorothy Fields – turned out hit after hit. One of them, as infectiously hummable today as it was back then, even helped Americans shed the Great Depression blues, urging them to grab a coat and hat, leave their worries on the doorstep, and start life anew “On The Sunny Side of the Street.”

No, my musical tastes aren’t mired in the past. But they aren’t exactly au courant either. Somehow I can’t persuade myself that what dominates the Top 40 airwaves these days is music. It strikes me as theatre, socio-political theatre – hostility and crudity chanted monotonously to the beat of jungle drums, hinting at violence just a hip-hop away. Hey, where are the likes of Leiber and Stoller when we really need them?

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

Who?

Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, a songwriting team from the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll whose songs, like those of McHugh, have been playing somewhere in the world for half a century and bid fair to keep going for another 50 years.

Never heard of Leiber and Stoller? Think “Jailhouse Rock.”

“Everybody in the whole cell block was dancing to the jailhouse rock.”

Think “Love Potion #9.”

“She bent down and turned around and gave me a wink.
She said I’m gonna mix it up right here in the sink.
It smelled like turpentine and looked like India ink.
I held my nose, I closed my eyes, I took a drink.”

Think “D.W. Washburn.”

“If you don’t get out of that gutter before the next big rain, D.W. Washburn, you’re gonna wash right down the drain.”

Truth is, the team of Leiber and Stoller was a virtual hit-making machine throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Even today, you can hardly surf the radio dial for a minute without landing on one of their songs, be it “Stand By Me” or “Poison Ivy” or “I’m A Woman” or “Searchin’” or “Charlie Brown,” or “Hound Dog” or “Kansas City” or “Little Egypt” or “Fools Fall In Love” or “Youngblood” or “There Goes My Baby” or “Yakety Yak,” or the sublime ”Spanish Harlem,” a tune that fused rock ‘n’ roll with intricate poetry, violin and cello strings, and came out sounding perfectly lovely:

”There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem. It is a special one, it’s never seen the sun, it only comes out when the moon is on the run and all the stars are gleaming. It’s growing in the street, right up through the concrete, but soft and sweet and dreaming.”

If you think I’m suggesting here that they just don’t write them like that anymore, guess again. Really good songwriters continue to pour out the hit tunes that make up the soundtrack of our lives. But the really great ones, the Cole Porters, the Johnny Mercers, the Irvin Berlins, the Gibbs brothers, the Harold Arlens — the ones who turned out whole songbooks of their own musical genius, are now fewer and fewer. How many songwriters now alive can hope to match the feat of Indiana’s Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote four of America’s most-often-recorded songs of all time (“Stardust,” “Heart and Soul,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Georgia On My Mind”)?

But, thank goodness, the music never stops. After Leiber and Stoller came the Beatles, with gems like “Yesterday,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Then came Elton John (and Bernie Taupin) with “Bennie and the Jets” and “Honky Cat;” Carole King with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” not to mention the other songs on her fabulous album titled “Tapestry;” Don Henley (of the Eagles) with “Desperado,” “Heartache Tonight,” and ”One of These Nights.”

Close behind them came Billy Joel, the Everyman of popular music, with hits like “An Innocent Man,” “Just the Way You Are,” “New York State of Mind,” and “Keeping the Faith” – a verse of which, come to think of it, gives me the perfect exit lines:

“You can get just so much from a good thing. You can linger too long in your dreams.
Say goodbye to the Oldies but goodies ’cause the good ole days weren’t always good
and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

 

P.S. In case you missed it, this article was written by Robert Lamb.

*Holiday recorded the song with a team of famous musicians: Benny Goodman on clarinet; Lester Young, tenor sax; Buck Clayton, trumpet; Teddy Wilson, piano, Give a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKjXFuWgEU4

                                                             ###
  • Images: All of the images appeared for used in this story were originally promotional/fair use.
  • I wrote this essay last June and it appeared then on likethedew.com.

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