On the Time-Traveling Allusions of T.S. Eliot

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Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.

In this episode, writer and critic Elisa Gabbert joins host Catherine Nichols to discuss T.S. Eliot’s 1915 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem about aging, limitations, and disillusionment written by a young poet on the threshold of a brilliant career. How do the poet’s youth and the narrator’s age affect the tone of the poem? What makes it such a potently memorable (but also elusive) work? Included in the episode is discussion of Eliot’s essay about Marvell. Lit Century also wants to thank the T.S. Eliot Society for use of the audio recording of Eliot.

From the episode:

Elisa Gabbert: He believed you had to immerse yourself so much in poetry that sources kind of became internalized. And he thought if you read widely enough, that was the only way you could create something truly new. Which I have always found to be the case. The more I read, the more I know what has already been done, and I’m so much more able to be aware when I wrote something that was just a total cliché. I think sometimes people who haven’t read a lot—beginning writers, young students—think, “I’m going to be too easily influenced if I read too much.” But actually, what you don’t realize is when you’re using clichés because you haven’t read enough to recognize your own clichés yet; you don’t know how common the things that you think are.

Similarly, he thought the more you read, the more likely you would be to produce something new, and that if you created something truly novel, it would actually speak back to the past. This is totally my kind of time traveling shit when it comes to literature. You hear echoes of “Prufrock” when you read “To His Coy Mistress,” not just the other way around. And ditto Baudelaire; there’s those Baudelaire references. Actually I’m not sure if there’s anything direct in “Prufrock,” but certainly in “The Waste Land.” And then if you go back and read Baudelaire, you hear “The Waste Land.” It absolutely goes both ways. Time has no arrow if you’re using allusions properly.

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Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays, and criticism: The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays, out now from FSG Originals and Atlantic UKThe Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018); L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean, 2016); The Self Unstable (Black Ocean, 2013); and The French Exit (Birds LLC, 2010). The Unreality of Memory and The Word Pretty were both named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, and The Self Unstable was chosen by the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2013. She writes a regular poetry column for the New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’sThe New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the Guardian Long Read, the London Review of Books, A Public Space, the Paris Review Daily, American Poetry Review, and many other venues.

Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.

Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jezebel and The Seattle Review, among others. She lives in Boston.



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