From The Guardian:
The New Yorker critic Louis Menand, reflecting on TS Eliot’s transition from radical modernist to arch-conservative, wrote in a review of the poet’s letters: “He tried to shut the door on modern life. It was too late of course. He was the author of Prufrock and The Waste Land. He was already inside.”
Eliot would not have loved pop music but pop music loves Eliot. Ninety years after the publication of The Waste Land, he remains the lodestar poet for ambitious songwriters. They rummage through his masterpiece’s treasure chest of arresting phrases: the “violet hour” and “bodies naked on the low damp ground” quoted in the Sisters of Mercy’s Floorshow, “April is the cruellest month” kicking off Hot Chip’s Playboy or the “red sails” picked up by David Bowie on Lodger (Bowie told William Burroughs in 1974 that he’d “never read” Eliot but I suspect he got around to it).
Likewise 1915’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. “Like a patient etherized on a table” is paraphrased by avowed Eliot fan Win Butler in Arcade Fire’s We Used to Wait, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” became a song title for Chuck D, and “the Eternal Footman” crops up in Tori Amos’s Pretty Good Year. “Alfred J Prufrock would be proud of me,” declare Manic Street Preachers on My Guernica. And 1925’s The Hollow Men lends its name to songs by Faust, Gravenhurst and Cocteau Twins. And on it goes: Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Van Morrison, Rush, EMF, Crash Test Dummies, Okkervil River, the Clientele … “This music crept by me upon the waters.”
But why Eliot, above all other poets? One simple reason is that he is widely taught in British and American schools and he impacts on the adolescent imagination with peculiar force. The Waste Land may be unfathomably complex but it is easy to love regardless of whether you understand it. The language is juicy and pungent, full of fire and rain, rivers and dust, birth and death – lots of death. I remember deriving a thrill of pleasurable dread from its sense of crisis and doom when I first read it as a teenager. Lines such as “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper” (from The Hollow Men) would be at home on the back of a goth’s leather jacket. Eliot offers a vivid grown-up take on a teenager’s sense that all is not right with the world. At a difficult age you get the impression he’s on to something terribly important, even if you’re not sure what it is.
So the message resonates, in sometimes simplistic ways, but the medium also has much to teach songwriters. Just months after his death, on 4 January 1965, Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row described “Ezra Pound and TS Eliot/ Fighting in the captain’s tower.” You can understand the appeal to a man attempting to blast open the language of rock’n’roll in a period of sociopolitical flux. Eliot told Virginia Woolf that Joyce’s Ulysses, which he believed did in prose what The Waste Land did in verse, “destroyed the whole of the 19th century”. They were twin responses to the shattered postwar world – vast collages of competing voices which declared that the old ways were dead and new language was needed. But that new language was built from the bones of the old: a dizzying mosaic of allusion, quotation, pastiche and impersonation, assembled from ingredients gathered everywhere from the ivory towers to the saloon bars, ancient Greece to modern London, and inviting endless interpretation. It attempted to encompass everything in a way that could mean anything, which is a decent description of Dylan’s mission in Desolation Row. When Eliot, traumatised by the strain of composing The Waste Land, later dismissed it, he used a line you could imagine Dylan pitching to an earnest interviewer: “a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”
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