The poem that I have chosen to respond to is Preludes, which can be found in T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations on pages 12-13. The poem has elements which are common in Eliot’s works: the use of some kind of rhyme scheme, which is somewhat unusual for modernist poetry, as well as abundant imagery which is lyrical and emotionally profound, though it describes the tedium of everyday middle-class life. What I like about Eliot’s poetry is that even though he is heavy-handed with intertextual allusions, and I’m sure they’re present in Preludes as well, one can appreciate his poetry without any of the necessary background knowledge because of how adeptly he crafts his imagery and produces pathos. Some of the most compelling lines in this poem to me were “And the light crept up between the shutters / And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,” and “His soul stretched tight across the skies / That fade behind a city block.” The first to me conveys a sense of menace and despair about the things that we try to push away and hide, while the second speaks of the expansiveness of a man’s longing for something more, but he can’t overcome his own emotional distance and ennui.
A Handkerchief by Gertrude Stein especially attracts my attention. This series of her poems all have very solid and objective titles; however, through Stein’s short few lines, she made the image of that specific object abstracted. I find it really strange and hard to interpret the first time I read it, but the mystery behind her simple words draw me to go back to it again and even to read it out loud. “A winning of all the short blessings” seemingly is to describe a handkerchief that any blessing can be enveloped. Readers don’t need special knowledge to read or interpret her poems. Because the poem itself is a creation of steam of consciousness; I think readers are expected to capture the feeling of words, not the literal meaning behind the content. Additionally, the objects she described can be seen or heard everyday. However, she provided entirely new perspectives to observe these objects that are sometimes neglected by people.
Like most of her poems, Gertrude Stein’s poem “A Red Stamp” featured in Tender Buttons (1914) is hard to grasp on first read, and even harder to grasp on the second. Steins poems change the traditional construction of poems so much that most of the time they are beyond conventional comprehension, “A Red Stamp” being no exception. The first confusing thing about this poem is that it has no mention of a Red Stamp anywhere in its content. It is almost as if Stein just sees an object lying close to her, then creates a poem based off of her train of thought at the time of seeing the object. Stein is known for the concept of “automatic writing,” in which one creates poems letting their mind and hand become one being instead of fully thinking out what is being written. This practice makes it so her poem is more a string of words that allow for little to no interpretation because it is already fully deconstructed. The poem seems to be posing a question, however nothing is really asked of the reader, leaving them confused and unsure of what they have just read. The second confusing aspect to her poem is the repetition of words and sounds such as “if” and “dust.” She strings similar sounding words together to create some sort of meaning, but together the words are hard to process: “…and even dust, if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace…” (6). The way Stein uses repetition creates almost a hypnotic aspect to her poem, as if I was reading a spell or an enchantment. She uses diction that actually is quite lovely sound, there are a lot of “s” sounds that helps the poem flow like a hiss, however there is a sharp ending with the “ca” sound of “catalog.” Reading Steins poems is almost like reading into the human mind, and trying to understand the working of human thought. I think to attain pleasure from Stein’s poems one takes them on face value and move on. Poems like this are not up to interpretation because they simply are what they are, and since Stein focuses on sound more than sense, letting the poems stand alone is the most feasible way of making sense of them. Steins readers most likely did not know much about her or her poems, so this style of poetry could easily catch someone off guard. Yet I believe, even though her poems are more confusing than anything else, they do have creative merit through her way of writing them and letting her mind take the wheel.
Tender Buttons (1914) p. 6
Collected Poems 1909-1925, pp. 12-13
This poem, divided into four sections, depicts the change of a street throughout a day. Section I describes the deserted street in the evening, followed by Section II describing the same street in the morning. Section III contrasts with the first two, as it is written in second and not third person, and describes a person presumably living on the street and not the street itself. Section IV begins by describing the street’s return to the evening state, seemingly ending at the time the first section starts. The poem ends with a reflection on an infinite recurring change, culminating with the final lines
“The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots”
I love the continuity between the images in the different sections of the poem. For example, the “burnt-out ends of smoky days” in the first section become the “short square fingers stuffing pipes” in the last. Section I centers around the idea of rain pounding the street in the evening, and those showers become the “muddy feet that press/To early coffee stands” in Section II, and in turn the city block “trampled by insistent feet” in Section IV. The recurring, yet changing images are what create the idea of a continuous cycle.
The most literal interpretation of the cycle of the poem is as the cycle of night and day, yet the use of winter imagery at night gives additional layers to the poem, as does the first line of section IV:
“His soul stretched tight across the skies
that fade behind a city block”.
Eliot is likely referring to phenomena such as the change of seasons and the process of aging in human life. Of course, in true Eliot fashion, this cycle is portrayed as something dull, unchanging, and dirty–his descriptions throughout the poem use words like “grimy,” “withered,” “dingy,” “sordid,” etc.
This poem is an accessible poem. Although I’m probably missing some allusions and more complex metaphors, I was still able to appreciate it and gain additional meaning from it, as would have most readers at the time the poem was originally published.