Everybody has his or her year of genius, a yar in which neurons configure into revelations. For some it is at age five, for others, at age 65. Everything becomes a portal. You see your life globally. You see your life in a grain of sand or a raindrop. And you see, in a brilliant flash, the alien, strange, other-than-you life of the grain of sand or the raindrop.
For me, that age was approximately fourteen. 1972, 1973 – ninth grade. In the summer between the eighth and ninth grade, I made a fair amount of pocket change, for a kid, bagging ice for my Dad. Dad owned an ice company, due to, well, the absurdity that ruled like a broken mirror’s curse over my Dad. The company went belly up in, I believe, 1975.
For me, this money meant I could buy three things that helped nudge along my revelatory neuronal path: a television set, which I took into my room, a couple of Dylan albums, my first – Bringing it all back Home and Highway 61 – and a subscription to William Buckley’s National Review, then at the height of its intellectual powers. The tv made me independent of my family’s preference for Network programs. I, on the other hand, tuned into public tv, and was thus initiated, via a series of Bergman films and a series on World Cinema hosted by Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin, into the higher civilization of film, where despair was common and an occasional naked woman was to be seen – which was a big plus for a 14 year old.
The Dylan albums are self-explanatory, love em or hate em.
And the National Review was perfect for my self-fashioning as a little conservative. But they were even more than fantastic for my self-fashioning in general, since the standard of the writers in the general section was high, although tending towards the ultra-right – let’s hear it for Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, folks! – and the arts and manners and books section had writers like Guy Davenport and the crazy and now obscure novelist, D. Keith Mano.
Davenport’s review of Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era is an oddly important document for me – it was published in May 1972, and I still remember the names, the strange names in it: Apollinaire, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound. I had my nose against the shop window of the higher civilization that I knew existed outside of Clarkston Georgia. I have recently been looking through the correspondence between Davenport and Kenner, and enjoying a nostalgic thrill from the names of that time. Frank Meyer, who remembers Frank Meyer? Only old old movement people – the conservative movement, not the SDS.
I remember some of my eighth and ninth grade teachers, lovely people. But this is not, alas, the story of a stripling being taken under the wing of some wise English teacher. That would have been nice and Hollywoodish, but instead, I was taken under the wings of the Clarkston High School Library and the Decatur Library. It was at this time that the library stepped up for me, not as a place to find a picture book for a book report, but as this fantastic paradise where I could pick the fruit for free.
I discovered Dostoevsky, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein. I discovered Joyce – the Dubliners and the Portrait of an Artist. I discovered “modern” art, Gaugin, Van Gogh, Picasso, Duchamp, etc. If I went back to the art books today, I’d probably smile at how bad the photographic reproductions were, but for me at the time, this was all amazing.
As well, I discovered poetry. Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, those were my ticket beyond the shop window, aforementioned.
Eliot, I swallowed whole. He’s been my symbiot since. Knock Prufrock and the Wasteland out of me and you might as well kick me to the curb, because much of what makes me the me that is typing this would be lost.
Eliot of course went along with my young conservative styling, the nostalgia I imbibed from all those National Reviews. As I got over my genius year, I drifted far, far away from young conservativism, but I still liked Eliot’s elegant, elegiac sense of our modern decay – desolation row.
When I went to college, Eliot’s grip on the humanities, ie the literature departments, was loosening. It was becoming clearer that subjecting all poetry to critical techniques that work for a few metaphysical poets might be a mistake. The canon of the right ones – Herbert, Donne – and the wrong uns – Shelley, Tennyson – was breaking down.
What if “the existing monuments: did not “form an ideal order among themselves?” What if the monuments were more like kaleidoscopes? What if romanticism wasn’t some horrid blotch? Maybe trading a sour Christian order in which the vast majority was kept in ignorance and fear for the “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” was not a bad deal?
Eliot’s is an odd fate. Here was a man who refused to tread the path he could easily have tread. He could have ended up teaching at Columbia, like Lionel Trilling, instead of being a bank employee on the verge of a nervous breakdown. From which he went not into academia, but into publishing, become a Faber and Faber man. Yet, especially after WWII, and especially in certain American universities, Eliot’s critical stance was embedded in the orthodoxy of literature as a discipline.
That was never going to last. The explosive growth of higher education was moving the great unwashed – such as me – into the classroom. That unwashed was, at first, eager for the washing – and then began to consider that perhaps the washing should go the other way around.
For me, my genius age had some dire and dreadful consequences. It put me on the course of imitating my heroes and never adapting to the discipline of classroom specialization. My reading, even in college, was done under the precepts of idiosyncratic programs I made up for myself, in my head. This made me, in essence, an amateur. An autodidact. A crank. Modernism, as a literary phenomenon, is gloriously, incorrigibly crankish. It embraces Poe in Baudelaire or Mallarme’s translation. It veers with Pound towards Frobenius. It pretends with Wittgenstein to have never read the canonical philsophers.
The crank in me is always making up its own paradigms, which fail, because paradigms, by definition, are common and not idiosyncratic things. Idiosyncratic things are tics. Thus, my genius year and my life as a loser – or, more generously, as a crank – are tied together. This became evident to me when I was in grad school. All the dreaming about garrets when I was fourteen was not good for me.
I think the crankish side of TSE – the man who liked to put on purple lipstick when he went out, from time to time – was taken out of him by his disciples, who were succeeded by people who identified Eliot with his disciples and said: no thanks. I no longer pay much attention to Eliot’s idea of the canon - William Carlos Williams is now in the captain’s tower in my head. But I’m infinitely grateful to him. I’m faithful to the crank I met at fourteen.
The poetry. The poetry. That is the main thing.