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Confronting Racism and The Waste Land in the Era of #MeToo

The anger, as well as hope for meaningful change, brought about by the recent Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism and inequality call attention to a growing need for classroom conversations about literature and social justice. Teaching poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks and T. S. Eliot together in the same course affirms the enduring relevance of Eliot’s high modernism and, by highlighting the tragic consequences of racism as well as gender inequality, illuminates how the #MeToo generation can change the way we read Eliot. Why, I ask my students, did Brooks’s encounter with Eliot’s poetry lead to constructive critique of her own poetic methods, and change her approach to and conception of literary tradition? Poetry was much more to her than an academic exercise. Did reading and conversation about Eliot’s poetry enhance the social justice goals that are central to Brooks’s poetic vision? If so, how?

By her own account, Brooks’s initial study of Eliot was formative in her coming-of-age as a poet, and she made no secret of her admiration for his work in her interviews and autobiographical reflections. In 1933, when she was 16, she wrote to the African American poet and critic James Weldon Johnson, asking him what he thought of her poems: “I . . . had received back the poems I’d submitted for his criticism with helpful notes and underlinings on them. First, in a margin, he wrote: ‘Dear Miss Brooks—You have an unquestionable talent and feeling for poetry. Continue to write—at the same time, study carefully the work of the best modern poets—not to imitate them, but to help cultivate the highest possible standard of self-criticism.’”[1] This, I tell my students, is when Brooks began her close analyses of Eliot and Ezra Pound. The question why she would have done so usually prompts lively discussion. What does it mean to say that reading Eliot allowed Brooks to cultivate a standard of “self-criticism”? Does this mean that she felt bad about herself? Some students insist that self-criticism in this context would be damaging to Brooks’ creative efforts but, for the most part, they understand Johnson’s advice as promoting the ability to be open-minded, perceptive, and resilient, both in her encounters with canonical texts, and with regard to acknowledging the strengths and limitations of her own work. In this sense, Brooks’s self-criticism offers a valuable model for students as emerging critics, both of her writings and of their own.

Brooks understood Eliot’s dialectical perspective on the importance of tradition as a means of fostering and acknowledging her individual talent as a poet. In 1959, she published a review of Hugh Kenner’s The Invisible Poet in the Chicago Sun-Times, where she wrote, “You may ask, Why another of these studies? Why another venture into the careful candors of Eliot-land? But Hugh Kenner . . . discusses everything Eliotic . . .  and discloses influences that may surprise you. . . . Devotees of Eliot will be driven to an eager, Kenner-accompanied rereading of such poems as ‘The Waste Land,’ ‘The Hollow Men,’ ‘Journey of the Magi,’ ‘Gerontion’ and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’”[2] The effects of Brooks’s careful reading of Eliot are most evident in A Street in Bronzeville, her first collection of poetry, which was published by Harper and Brothers in 1945.[3] Students learning about this phase of her life and work are inspired to discover their own voices, summoning the courage and self-awareness they need to converse with and about Eliot and, like Brooks, to respond creatively to his poems. The canonicity and daunting difficulty of Eliot’s allusive, fragmented style become sources of curiosity and motivation, nurturing classroom dialogue and bridging social divides. Discomfort with Brooks’s poetry, as with Eliot’s, as Michelle Taylor observes, allows students to learn through their own acts of reading as they grapple perceptively with the experience.  Hearing Brooks’s voice in poems where she successfully adapts Eliot’s modernist techniques for the purpose of social critique—portraying, for example, the traumatic legacy of racism in “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith” and “kitchenette building,” or exploring oppression and intersectionality in her abortion poem, “the mother”—students find space for their own voices, in Janine Utell’s sense. Sumita Chakraborty asks whether contending with Eliot’s poetry can yield a thriving ethical discourse even when its articulations are unheard. In my experience, Brooks’s A Street In Bronzeville, composed in contention with Eliot, presents a nuanced ethical discourse that we should always strive to hear and clarify, insofar as it imposes order and significance on the chaotic panorama of the 1930s and 1940s as decades of deepened Black poverty and renewed racial terrorism.

I call attention to what Erin Templeton might call Brooks’s border-crossing with Eliot’s poetry in order to explain her synthesis of urban realism and modernist techniques, a synthesis that also drew significant inspiration and encouragement from the example of Richard Wright. Both Brooks and Wright were leading figures in the Black Chicago Renaissance, a creative interarts movement that began in the 1930s and lasted through the early years of the Cold War.  It is helpful to include Wright’s poetry alongside Brooks’s and Eliot’s, because there are many compelling allusions to Eliot in works written over the course of Wright’s career. Focusing, for example, on Wright’s “Between the World and Me,” a poem that appeared in Partisan Review in the summer of 1935, where Wright renders his speaker’s awakening to shocked horror at a lynching, or “Transcontinental,” another poem influenced by Eliot which Wright published in International Literature in 1936, class discussions involve us in a profound, necessary confrontation with the history of racial violence in the United States, and help us to better understand the fundamental connection between American racism and racial nationalism as a precipitating cause of World War. I also assign Wright’s late haiku-inspired poems, which were published in 1998 as Haiku: This Other World, where Wright’s interest in Buddhism and transpacific interculturality rendered Eliot’s work more centrally relevant than ever. Recalling Wright’s allusion to “rats’ alley” in his first novel, Lawd, Today!, or the rat symbolism in Native Son, or the rats that frequently appear in Wright’s late poetry, I ask students to compare and contrast Wright’s symbolism with Eliot’s. Whereas rats in Eliot’s poems are confined and concealed in segregated urban spaces such as alleys, wharf piles, cellars, and basements, Wright creatively redeems this racist symbolism, by endowing rats with universally human connotations.[4] The new editions of Eliot’s poems, prose, and letters, including the annotations and scholarship of Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, have helped students to identify and closely examine this racist symbolism in Eliot. They are more confident in their analyses, because Eliot’s allusions and summary notes take on what Nancy Gish describes as the passionate intensity of felt experience, and they have a wealth of contextual evidence to support their claims. Together, we question assumptions generated by racist stereotypes, much in the same way that Carrie Preston has helped students to avoid the assumptions of gendered pronouns in Eliot’s work.

In 1971, Brooks recalled how, three years earlier, during the Fisk University Writers’ Conference, she was introduced to the aesthetics and politics of the Black Arts movement. As a result of her awareness of this radical political movement, she dismissed the modernist-inspired formal experiments in her poetry from the 1940s and 1950s as “white writing.”[5] The question of whether or not Brooks’s initial engagement with modernist poetics ultimately impeded her development has been subject to much critical debate. Not all students will agree that Brooks, by integrating the influences of both Eliot and Wright, effectively represents the traumatic legacy of racism and alienated mental life of the modern metropolis. Nonetheless, at the very least, our classroom conversations demonstrate that her salient critique of racial inequality in twentieth-century American society is enhanced by close comparisons with and analyses of Eliot’s writings. Acknowledging how Eliot’s modernism figured in the development of Brooks’s poetics of social critique, students also become more open-minded in their reading and discussion of why she was drawn to other canonical modernist works, such as Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, when she was composing her poems. We have yet to ascertain how A Street in Bronzeville anticipates many of the social justice concerns of the Black Arts movement during the 1960s and 1970s. Bringing Brooks, Eliot, Wright, and Pound together in the classroom allows us to address the pressing issues of racial and gender violence and inequality, while also teaching empathy at a time when social divisions are dangerously on the rise.


Notes

[1] Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One (Detroit, MI: Broadside Press, 1972), 202.

[2] Gwendolyn Brooks, “Scholar Sheds Further Light on T. S. Eliot,” Chicago Sun-Times (August 16, 1959).

[3] Anita Patterson, “‘Careful Candors’: Gwendolyn Brooks, T. S. Eliot, and the Poetics of Social Critique,” Literature and Culture of the Chicago Renaissance, ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani (New York:  Routledge, 2019), 88-103.

[4] Anthony Julius, T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 2, 22, 46, 80; Anita Patterson, “T. S. Eliot, Richard Wright, and Transpacific Modernism,” The T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, forthcoming.

[5] Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One, 177.