I don’t think it’s possible to write today and not feel like our language is somehow becoming exhausted.* Everywhere, there’s just a sense that too much has already been said and too many words have already been put together in too many combinations and that it’s no longer possible to come up with anyone that’s fresh and genuinely affecting. The refuge is, of course, to retreat into irony and meta-fictional and cleverness and weirdness and play: modes that admit of everything that’s been done before and attempt to comment on it.
But, increasingly, I’ve had the feeling that this exhaustion is all just a bunch of ginned-up silliness.
For instance, my class has begun its poetry unit. (Yes, it is absurd that I’m being paid to teach undergrads how to read and write poetry). And I’m not sure how much my class is getting out of the experience, but I, personally, am learning a ton. For instance, I’ve finally started to gain a sense for rhyme and meter (although I wouldn’t want to be tested on it or anything). And being forced to look at poems very closely has made me really appreciate some of what poets do.
Just yesterday, I was teaching “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” (already one of my more favorite poems) and I was struck with how intense and how fresh the language seems. The words aren’t strange and the diction isn’t ornate, but, even though the poem is over ninety years old, I’ve rarely heard lines that equal Eliot’s in power. It’s shocking to think that a couplet like “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas” is just a set of words that I or anyone else could have arranged in order if it had occurred to us. Other powerful lines:
For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
Obviously, I could go on and on and bore you with lines that you’ve heard before. I’ve just quoted some of the most famous lines in the history of English poetry. And perhaps this just goes to illustrate the exhaustion of language. These lines are ninety years old and they’ve only rarely been surpassed. But there’s something exciting in them. Something reproducible.
Most masterpieces are sterile. Proust pioneered a host of fascinating techniques in order to write his novel, but most of his innovations died immediately: they were never used again. There will never be another novel that follows in his footsteps. The same goes for so many of the modernist watermarks. For whatever reason, they feel like they’re in decline. Faulkner and Woolf have no children in the modern day.
That’s part of what gives rise to this feeling of exhaustion. There’s a notion that each writer rips open the curtain and, through titanic effort, finds some interesting new way to say…something. But then the curtain is stitched up behind them, stronger than ever. Each success makes it a little harder for the next writer to succeed.
But Eliot’s poem doesn’t feel that way. To me, it feels like he’s reinvigorating the language and showing us that there’s still some power to the simple art of arranging words in a pleasing pattern.
* This is especially the case, I think, when you’re working and writing at Johns Hopkins, the former home of John Barth and his extensive writings on the subject.