Tag Archive: T. S. Eliot


The Ugly Truth

John Keats - if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar...

John Keats – if beauty is truth, then you must be a liar…

John Keats composed the famous lines “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” in his much-anthologized poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Ol’ Johnny is one of the names that even non-literary people know, even if only as “some guy I learned about in college,” mostly because of this poem. It’s famous for a reason, and that’s because it’s true.

I take that back – it’s half true, maybe not even that. An enormous amount of the truth in this world isn’t beautiful at all. Cancer; war; child slavery; sexual slavery; serial killers; planes crashing into skyscrapers. And some of the beautiful things in this world don’t communicate any truth at all. I’m reminded of Dumbledore’s warning to Harry about the Mirror of Erised: “This mirror gives neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away in front of it.”

My mother is constantly puzzled about why I like some music or some movies that are about suffering, hate, pain or other bad facts of the world. While I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer – even to myself – I think it has to do with my relentless search for truth, regardless of how it makes me feel.  The primary source of truth for me is God, and while that’s my mother’s source as well, God leads us down different paths that often lead to different truths. Not opposed truths, mind you; just as a house divided against itself cannot stand (thanks Abe), truth divided against itself isn’t really truth at all. But some of the nuggets of truth that I discover are ones my mother is just not privy to, and vice versa.

Joy Division is one of those places I find an experience that communicates real, unflinching truth. Notice I didn’t say that truth is communicated directly from the band; it’s not. I doubt Ian Curtis knew or cared whether he was communicating truth. But his lyrics are honest – about how he felt, how he perceived things, and how things affected him. To a properly discerning mind, such honesty will always communicate truth.

And it just so happens that Joy Division’s particular flavor of truth wouldn’t be at all palatable to my mother, but it is to me. Maybe this is because I’ve gotten a little taste of death. I’ve faced the reality of shifting my existence from one phase to another, and I’ve faced the pain in that transition. Joy Division never appealed to me before I got cancer. But after my diagnosis, I gained an understanding about both this world and eternity, and suddenly there was much more truth available than before. Strange as it may seem, some of that truth lay within Joy Division’s music.

“So what is that truth?” I hear you asking. I wish I could explain it in one sentence, a pithy phrase or aphorism that people so often mistake for “wisdom.” But this truth can’t be transferred with words only, not even from a writer with my considerable but ultimately inadequate skill. But I can tell you this: it won’t make you feel good. It might even bum you out. But despite that, it has the power to make you a better person.

I don’t have a pithy phrase, but I do have a song that captures Joy Division’s essence and entire musical ethos in a mere 6 minutes and 10 seconds. “Decades” contains all the sadness, weight and depth of meaning that Ian Curtis was ever trying to tell the world. “Decades” is about being brought to the absolute brink of darkness, or “knock[ing] on the doors of Hell’s darker chamber,” and the evacuation of personhood that causes. It’s comparable to “The Hollow Men,” by T.S. Eliot, which is about the same thing. The “young men” in “Decades” have been forced into deep, dank places where they’ve had their humanity torn to shreds. The most immediate application of this theme is lads returning home after a war – in Britain, that would most likely be WWII. My own interpretation involves being introduced to death, as I was. When you come back from that, you’re changed, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly how.

But to really understand the truth Joy Division communicates, you need to actually listen to “Decades” – preferably hundreds of times over 5 to 10 years like I did. The real truth is in the music, the emotion it invokes, and the cosmic experience it sparks. And I would posit that ALL the best music is like this.

Joy Division’s career was incredibly short. They formed in 1976 (under the name Warsaw), their first album was released in 1979, and Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980. Closer and the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” were released posthumously, and the rest of the band then reinvented themselves as New Order. At first glance this seems tragic, mired in Ian’s unrealized potential. But being the optimist I am, I think that Joy Division’s destiny involved everything that happened to them and they did what they were supposed to do. And they’re still doing it; so many bands simply would not exist were it not for Joy Division. But the most important thing they did was communicate truth. Ugly truth it may be, but truth’s nature is not affected by our labeling of it with “beautiful” or “ugly.” It’s just truth.

Next: Hell IS a bad place be.

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here - 9/12/1975

Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here – 9/12/1975

Two years after their brilliant explosion of success, Pink Floyd made the best song of their career. Not a lot of people agree with me, and with good reason. The title track from their 1975 question mark album Wish You Were Here really doesn’t make a whole lot of waves. Most albums worth their salt have a track like “Wish You Were Here”; it’s a breath inward, a break in the action that usually comes before one final push. Led Zep’s “Going to California”; Black Sabbath’s “Solitude”; R.E.M. with “Hairshirt” and “Country Feedback”; even the Beatles with “Yesterday.” And as to Pink Floyd’s best song, most people would point to “Another Brick In the Wall Pt. 2,” “Time,” See Emily Play,” “Comfortably Numb” or “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” as their greatest defining single. But “Wish You Were Here,” in my mind, surpasses them all.

There’s more than one reason, too. First is that it contains some of the BEST lyrics EVER penned, and certainly the greatest turn of phrase of the entire ‘70s. The whole song is great, but this is the best:

Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?

Second, the song’s grasp far exceeds its reach, which is opposite of how most songs come out. It’s little more than a lazily strummed acoustic guitar, a drunken piano, and light and airy drums. The final coda has a bluesy guitar solo on top of it that makes the song float away. But the ecstasy the song possesses while it’s playing and the impact it leaves have a size and scope that simply defies logic.

Third and most importantly, “Wish You Were Here” succinctly and beautifully captures the essence and message of the album which lends it its name. Wish You Were Here is about the alienation and emptiness felt by someone who has been given all this world has to offer. The Dark Side of the Moon brought Pink Floyd success on every level. Money, girls, drugs, and hordes of adoring fans – all the things you presumably get into the music business for, aside from actual music – all of this had come Pink Floyd’s way. They had definitely paid their dues; Dark Side was their 8th studio outing, and they had been together for over 10 years by the time that things started settling back down in 1974. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom – now what?

“Wish You Were Here” is in second person, addressing someone directly in the present tense. What passes for a chorus in this little-engine-that-could goes like this:

How I wish you were here / We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year / Running over the same old ground / Have we found the same old fears? / Wish you were here

Who is the “you” in this song? Who is the lyricist addressing? Some say it’s Syd Barrett; that’s because Syd is the focus of the song “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a 26+ minute opus split into two halves which open and close the album (and the reason most people buy the album anyway). Some say the “you” is musical purity, the elemental material of music unencumbered by corporate greed and financial motivation. That’s what the other two songs on Wish You Were Here are about: “Welcome to the Machine” is a disturbing exploration of how innocent rock and roll dreams are corrupted by money, and “Have a Cigar” paints a clear portrait of a greedy record executive (more on both of those later).

But I think the “You” in “Wish You Were Here” is Pink Floyd itself. Their 9th album finds them completely empty, wondering how they got to this crazy place and desperately wanting to return to a simpler time. In the process of getting bigger, more popular and more successful, they lost who they were. And with Wish You Were Here, they are finally asking the question, “Who are we?” It’s their most existential album yet; Søren Kirkegaard would be proud.

And the title track has all the existential wanderings of the entire album rolled into a naked singularity. Pink Floyd’s desire to strip away all the complications and fallacies the music business imposes on them is reflected in the musical simplicity of the track. It’s not a complicated song – more often than not, a good piece of art is defined by what the artist takes away instead of by what he adds. But since I make my existence on words, the thing I remember the most is the poetic method Pink Floyd uses to work out its angst. The lyrics are simply stunning, and leave me dumbstruck. “Wish You Were Here” is a true poem, right up there with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “She Walks In Beauty.” The mark: it leaves me with nothing to say, because I can find no words better than the ones it uses.

Next: Syd Barrett, the crazy diamond.

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Since high school, my favorite poet has been T. S. Eliot. As a poet myself, you couldn’t really tell; my style is much more similar to Emily Dickinson and Alfred Lord Tennyson, with a little Byron thrown in there. But Eliot remains my favorite, in part because I can’t imitate him. Every time I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and especially “Journey of the Magi,” I am defeated by his rhythms, choice of words, but most of all his content. My poetry is good for what it is, but there always a sneaking doubt in my mind that says, “well, I’ll never be as good as T. S. Eliot…”

My least favorite poem by my most favorite poet is “The Waste Land.” I know, some of you fellow Eliot enthusiasts are gasping in horror. “The Waste Land” is Eliot’s undisputed greatest work, his magnum opus, if you will. And I recognize that it’s a seminal work in the craft of poetry and represent a shift in style for the entire art form. But I’ve only read in completely though once, and that was for a college class. Each time I try, I get frustrated – not with the poem, but with myself, my lack of focus, and my inability to understand it. And I’d wager that this is a feeling that a lot of “The Waste Land’s” readers have felt at least once, even if they won’t admit it.

Tiresias, the blind prophet

Tiresias, the blind prophet

A central figure in “The Waste Land” is the character Tiresias, the famous blind prophet from Greek myth. His most famous appearance is in Oedipus Rex, where he reveals what eventually ends (spoiler alert) with Oedipus poking out his own eyes. The highlight of his appearance in “The Waste Land,” however, is his experience as both a man and a woman.

The myth, when boiled down to almost nothing, says Tiresias was a pawn in a bet the gods had going about which of the genders enjoyed sex more. Tiresias, being a mortal man, was transformed into a woman to compare and contrast the pleasures of sex from both perspectives. His answer? If 10 is the total enjoyment of sex, women enjoy it 7 and men enjoy it 3. Being men, this pissed the gods off something awful. In a true shoot-the-messenger fashion, they instantly struck Tiresias blind. As a consolation prize, though, they gave him the ability to perfectly foresee the future. A fat lot of good it did him; when he told people what would happen in the future they never listened to him, despite the fact that he was always right.

“The Waste Land” isn’t about Tiresias directly, but uses him to further explore the intricacies of gender, the differences between them, and what it means to be male or female. I’m surprised David Bowie didn’t do an entire album based on “The Waste Land,” since this is right up his alley. Instead, we get a little retelling/recasting of the whole Tiresias/Waste Land characterization in Genesis’s “The Cinema Show.”

Now, “The Cinema Show” is NOT “The Waste Land.” When they stand next to each other, you want to push them apart. In fact, if “The Waste Land” were a human body that suddenly sprouted a second head and the two heads started arguing with each other, the second head would be “The Cinema Show.”

There’s a passage from “The Waste Land” that talks about a woman simply referred to as “the typist” and a young man and their sexual encounter. “The Cinema Show” has similar characters, but Gabriel calls upon another source (Shakespeare) and calls them “Romeo” and “Juliet.” Eliot’s account of this encounter is dark and unsettling, filled with harsh and alarming physicality. In it, we have the injustice and imbalance of the man taking by force exactly what he wants from the woman, and the woman not even trying to resist. At the end, the woman is left empty while the man is full. In Peter Gabriel’s recasting of this story, however, it takes a near-180; it’s a little silly, a little playful, and dare I say romantic. The only hint we have that it’s the same story is the imperative of Romeo’s words: “I WILL make my bed with her tonight…” But why WILL he? ‘Cause he brought her chocolate. Giving the typist free candy probably isn’t something that would even occur to Eliot’s “young man carbuncular.”

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel

If we only have the two options of Eliot’s somber and hopeless approach to the gender divide and Gabriel’s “whatcha cryin’ about?” attitude about the same thing, I’d choose Gabriel’s. But it strikes me, as it does with a lot of things, that there must be a third option. If I’m looking for something and I’m not happy with what I find, I’m gonna keep looking.

From my own perspective, gender and its offshoots are not universal for all people… at all, really. There are as many different ways to be men as there are men. But at the same time, I don’t hold with the loose and fast “gender-don’t-mean-a-thing” attitude that’s so prevalent in our society today. Despite some people trying to deny it, men and women are just different. That’s not a limiting thing, or at least it doesn’t have to be. But there’s nothing wrong with the exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman, or even if it means anything at all. I’ve always thought that questions lead to answers if you ask the right person. I believe there is an answer to the question of the gender divide, and it’s NOT as simple “boys play sports and girls play with dolls.” Whoever said that lacked imagination.