HELPING T. S. ELIOT WRITE BETTER (NOTES TOWARD A DEFINITIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY)


This essay is from Cynthia Ozick's Fame and Folly published by Knopf in 1996.

It is not yet generally known to the world of literary scholarship that an early version of T S. Eliot's celebrated poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," first appeared in The New Shoelace, an impoverished publication of uncertain circulation located on East Fifteenth Street. Eliot, then just out of Harvard, took the train down from Boston carrying a mottled manila envelope. He wore slip-on shoes with glossy toes. His long melancholy cheeks had the pallor associated in those days with experimental poets.

The New Shoelace was situated on the topmost floor of an antique factory building. Eliot ascended in the elevator with suppressed elation; his secret thought was that, for all he knew, the young Henry James, fastidiously fingering a book review for submission, might once have entered this very structure. The brick walls smelled of old sewing machine oil. The ropes of the elevator, visible through a hole in its ceiling, were frayed and slipped occasionally; the car moved languidly, groaning. On the seventh floor Eliot emerged. The deserted corridor, with its series of shut doors, was an intimidating perplexity He passed three with frosted glass panels marked by Signs: BIALY'S WORLDWIDE NEEDLES; WARSHOWER WOOL TRADING CORP.; and MEN. Then came the exit to the fire escape. The New Shoelace, Eliot reasoned, must be in the opposite direction. MONARCH BOX CO.; DIAMOND'S LIGHTING FIXTURES-ALL NEW DESIGNS; MAX'S THIS-PLANET-ONLY TRAVEL SERVICE; YANKELOWITZ'S ALL-COLOR BRAID AND TRIM; LADIES. And there, at the very end of the passage, tucked into a cul-de-sac, was the office of The New Shoelace. The manila envelope had begun to tremble in the young poet's grip. Behind that printed title reigned Firkin Barmuenster, editor.

In those far-off days, The New Shoelace, though very poor, as its shabby furnishings readily attested, was nevertheless in possession of a significant reputation. Or, rather, it was Firkin Barmuenster who had the reputation. Eliot was understandably cowed. A typist in a fringed scarf sat huddled over a tall black machine, looking rather like a recently oppressed immigrant out of steerage, swatting the keys as if they were flies. Five feet from the typist's cramped table loomed Firkin Barmuenster's formidable desk, its surface hidden under heaps of butter-spotted manuscript, odoriferous paper bags, and porcelain-coated tin coffee mugs chipped at their rims. Firkin Barmuenster himself was nowhere to be seen.

The typist paused in her labors. "Help you?"

"I am here," Eliot self-consciously announced, "to offer something for publication."

"F.B. stepped out a minute."

"May I wait?"

"Suit yourself. Take a chair."

The only chair on the horizon, however, was Firkin Barmeunster's own, stationed forbiddingly on the other side of the awe-inspiring desk. Eliot stood erect as a sentry, anticipating the footsteps that at last resounded from the distant terminus of the corridor. Firkin Barmuenster, Eliot thought, must be returning from the door marked MEN. Inside the manila envelope in Eliot's fevered grasp, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"glowed with its incontrovertible promise. One day, Eliot felt sure, ne of the most famous poems on earth, studied by college freshmen and corporate executives on their way up. Onlynow there were these seemingly insurmountable obstacles: he, Tom Eliot, was painfully young, and even more painfully obscure; and Firkin Barmuenster was known to be ruthless in his impatience with bad writing. Eliot believed in his bones that "Prufrock" was not bad writing. He hoped that Firkin Barmuenster would be true to his distinction as a great editor, and would be willing to bring out Eliot's proud effort in the pages of The New Shoelace. The very ink-fumes that rose up out of the magazine excited Eliot and made his heart fan more quickly than ever. Print!

"Well, well, what have we here?" Firkin Barmuenster inquired, settling himself behind the mounds that towered upward from the plateau of his desk, and reaching into one of the paper bags to extract a banana.

"I've written a poem," Eliot said.

"We don't mess with any of those," Firkin Barmuenster growled. "We are a magazine of opinion."

"I realize that," Eliot said, "but I've noticed those spaces you sometimes leave at the bottom of your articles of opinion, and I thought that might be a good place to stick in a poem, since you're not using that space for anything else anyhow. Besides," Eliot argued in conciliatory fashion, "my poem also expresses an opinion."

"Really? What on?"

"If you wouldn't mind taking half a second to look at it-"

"Young man," Firkin Barmuenster barked rapidly, "let me tell you the kind of operation we run here. In the first place, these are modern times. We're talking 1911, not 1896. What we care about here are up-to-date issues. Politics. Human behavior. Who rules the world, and how. No wan and sickly verses, you follow?"

"I believe, sir," Eliot responded with grave courtesy, "that I own an entirely new Voice."

"Voice?"

"Experimental, you might call it. Nobody else has yet written this way. My work represents a revolt from the optimism and cheerfulness of the last century. Dub it wan and sickly if you will-it is, if you don't mind my blowing my own horn"-but here he lowered his eyes, to prove to Firkin Barmuenster that he was

aware of how painfully young, and painfully obscure, he was-"an implicit declaration that poetry must not only be found through suffering, but can find its own material only in suffering. I insist," he added even more shyly, "that the poem should be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness. To see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory."

"I like what you say about the waste of all that white space," Firkin Barmuenster replied, growing all at once thoughtful. 'All right, let's have a look. What do you call your jingle?"

"'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.' "

"Well, that won't do. Sit down, will you? I can't stand people standing, didn't my girl tell you that?"

Eliot looked about once again for a chair. To his relief, he spied a high stool just under the single grimy window, which gave out onto a bleak airshaft. A stack of back issues of The New Shoelace was piled on it. As he gingerly removed them, placing them with distaste on the sooty sill, the cover of the topmost magazine greeted Eliot's eye with its tedious headline: MONARCHY VS.

ANARCHY-EUROPE'S POLITICAL DILEMMA. This gave poor Tom Eliot a pang. Perhaps, he reflected fleetingly, he had brought his beloved "Prufrock" to the wrong crossroads of human aspiration? How painfully young and obscure he felt! Still, a novice must begin somewhere. Print! He was certain that a great man like Firkin Barmuenster (who had by then finished his banana) would sense unusual new talent.

"Now, Prudecock, show me your emanation," Firkin Barmuenster demanded, when Eliot had dragged the stool over to the appropriate spot in front of the editor's redoubtable desk.

"Prufrock, Sir. But I'm Eliot." Eliot's hands continued to shake as he drew the sheets of "Prufrock:' from the mottled manila envelope.

"Any relation to that female George?" Firkin Barmuenster freeassociated companionably, so loudly that the fringed typist turned from her clatter to stare at her employer for a single guarded moment.

"It's Tom," Eliot said; inwardly he burned with the ignominy of being so painfully obscure.

"I like that. I appreciate a plain name. We're in favor of clarity here. We're straightforward. Our credo is that every sentence is either right or wrong, exactly the same as a sum. You follow me on this, George?"

"Well," Eliot began, not daring to correct this last slip of the tongue (Freud was not yet in his heyday, and it was too soon for the dark significance of such an error to have become public knowledge), "actually it is my belief that a sentence is, if I may take the liberty of repeating myself, a kind of Voice, with its own suspense, its secret inner queries, its chancy idiosyncrasies and soliloquies. Without such a necessary view, one might eunuchize, one might render neuter-"

But Firkin Barmuenster was already buried in the sheets of "Prufrock." Eliot watched the steady rise and fall of his smirk as he read on and on. For the first time, young Tom Eliot noticed Barmuenster's style of dress. A small trim man lacking a mustache but favored with oversized buff teeth and grizzled hair the color of ash, Barmuenster wore a checkered suit of beige and brown, its thin red pinstripe running horizontally across the beige boxes only; his socks were a romantic shade of robin's egg blue, and his shoes, newly and flawlessly heeled, were maroon with white wing-tips. He looked more like a professional golfer down on his luck than a literary man of acknowledged stature. Which, Eliot mused, was more representative of Barmuenster's intellectual configuration-his sartorial preferences or the greasy paper bags under his elbows? It was impossible to decide.

Firkin Barmuenster kept reading. The typist went on smacking imaginary flies. Eliot waited.

"I confess," Firkin Barmuenster said slowly, raising his lids to confront the pallid face of the poet, "that I didn't expect anything this good. I like it, my boy, I like it!" He hesitated, gurgling slightly, like a man who has given up pipe-smoking once and for all. And indeed, Eliot spied two or three well-chewed abandoned pipes in the tumbler that served as pencil-holder; the pencils, too, were much-bitten. "You know our policy on fee, of course. After we get finished paying Clara and the rent and the sweeping up and the price of an occasional banana, there's not much left for the writer,

George-only the glory I know that's all right with you, I know You'll understand that what we're chiefly interested in is preserving the sanctity of the writer's text. The text is holy, it's holy writ, that's what it is. We'll set aside the title for a while, and put our minds to it later. What's the matter, George? You look speechless with gratitude."

"I never hoped, sir-I mean, I did hope, but I didn't think-"

"Let's get down to business, then. The idea is excellent, first-rate, but there's just a drop too much repetition. You owned up to that yourself a minute ago. For instance, I notice that you say, over

here,

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo,

and then, over here, on the next page, you say it again."

"That's meant to be a kind of reftain," Eliot offered modestly."

Yes, I see that, but our subscribers don't have time to read things twice. We've got a new breed of reader nowadays. Maybe back, say, in 1896 they had the leisure to read the same thing twice, but our modern folks are on the run. I see you're quite a bit addicted to the sin of redundancy. Look over here, where you've got

'I am Lazarus, come back ftom the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all--

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: 'That is not what I meant at all;

That is not it, at all.'



Very nice, but that reference to the dead coming back is just too iffy. I'd drop that whole part. The pillow, too. You don't need that pillow; it doesn't do a thing for you. And anyhow you've said 'all' four times in a single place. That won't do. It's sloppy And who uses the same word to make a rhyme? Sloppy!" Barmuenster iterated harshly, bringing his fist down heavily on the next banana,

peeled and naked, ready for the eating. "Now this line down here, where you put in

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,

well, the thing to do about that is let it go. It's no use dragging in the Bard every time you turn around. You can't get away with that sort of free ride."

"I thought," Eliot murmured, wondering (ahead of his time) whether banana-craving could somehow be linked to pipe deprivation, "it would help show how Prufrock feels about himself-"

"Since you're saying he doesn't feel like Hamlet, why put Hamlet in? We can't waste words, not in 1911 anyhow. Now up here, top of the page, you speak of

a pair of ragged claws

scuttling across the floor of silent seas.


Exactly what kind of claws are they? Lobster claws? Crab? Precision, my boy, precision!"

"I just meant to keep it kind of general, for the atmosphere-"

"If you mean a crustacean, say a crustacean. At The New Shoelace we don't deal in mere metonymy."

"Feeling is a kind of meaning, too. Metaphor, image, allusion, lyric form, melody, rhythm, tension, irony, above all the objective correlative-" But poor Tom Eliot broke off lamely as he saw the older man begin to redden.

"Tricks! Wool-pullers! Don't try to tell Firkin Barmuenster about the English language. I've been editing The New Shoelace since before you were born, and I think by now I can be trusted to know how to clean up a page of words. I like a clean page, I've explained that. I notice you have a whole lot of question marks all over, and they go up and down the same ground again and again. You've got So how should I presume? and then you've got And how should I presume? and after that you've got And should I presume? You'll just have to decide on how you want that and then keep to it. People aren't going to make allowances for you forever, you know, just because you're painfully young. And you shouldn't put in so many question marks anyhow. You should use nice clean declarative sentences. Look at this, for instance, just look at what a mess you ve got here-

I grow old ... I grow old ...

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

That won't do in a discussion of the aging process. There you go repeating yourself again, and then that question business cropping up, and 'beach' and 'each' stuck in just for the rhyme. Anybody can see it's just for the rhyme. All that jingling gets the reader impatient. Too much baggage. Too many words. Our new breed of reader wants something else. Clarity. Straightforwardness. Getting to the point without a whole lot of nervous distraction. Tell me, George, are you serious about writing? You really want to become a writer some day?"

The poet swallowed hard, the blood beginning to pound in his head. "It's my life," Eliot answered simply.

'"And you're serious about getting into print?"

"I'd give my eyeteeth," admitted Tom.

"All right. Then you leave it to me. What you need is a good clean job of editing. Clara!" he called.

The fringed typist glanced up, as sharply as before.

"Do we have some white space under any of next issue's articles?"

"Plenty, F. B. There's a whole slew of white at the bottom of that piece on Alice Roosevelt's new blue gown."

"Good. George," the editor pronounced, holding out his viscid hand in kindness to the obscure young poet, "leave your name and address with Clara and in a couple of weeks we'll send you a copy of yourself in print. If you weren't an out-of-towner I'd ask you to come pick it up, to save on the postage. But I know what a thrill real publication in a bona fide magazine is for an aspiring novice like yourself. I recollect the days of my own youth, if you'll excuse the cliche. Careful on the elevator-sometimes the rope gets stuck on that big nail down near the fifth floor, and you get a bounce right up those eyeteeth of yours. Oh, by the way-any suggestions for the title?"

The blood continued to course soundingly in young Tom Eliot's temples. He was overwhelmed by a bliss such as he had never before known. Print! "I really think I still like 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,' " his joy gave him the courage to declare.

"Too long. Too oblique. Not apropos. Succinctness! You've heard of that old maxim, 'So that he who runs may read?' Well, my personal credo is: So that he who shuns may heed. That's what The New Shoelace is about. George, I'm about to put you on the map with all those busy folks who shun versifying. Leave the title to me. And don't you worry about that precious Voice of yours, George-the text is holy writ, I promise you."

Gratefully, Tom Eliot returned to Boston in high glee. And within two weeks he had fished out of his mailbox the apotheosis of his tender years: the earliest known publication of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

It is a melancholy truth that nowadays every company president can recite the slovenly unedited opening of this justly famous item-

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels, etc.

-but these loose and wordy lines were not always so familiar, or so easily accessible. Time and fate have not been kind to Tom Eliot (who did, by the way, one day cease being painfully young): for some reason the slovenly unedited version has made its way in the world more successfully during the last eighty years than Barmuenster's conscientious efforts at perfection. Yet the great Firkin Barmuenster, that post-fin-de-siecle editor renowned for meticulous concision and passionate precision, for launching many a new literary career, and for the improvement of many a flaccid and redundant writing style, was-though the fact has so far not yet reached the larger reading public-T. S. Eliot's earliest supporter and discoverer.

For the use of bibliographers and, above all, for the delectation of poetry lovers, the complete text of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:' as it appeared in The New Shoelace of April 17, 1911, follows:

THE MIND OF MODERN MAN


by

George Eliot


(Editor's Note: A new contributor, Eliot is sure to be heard from in the future. Out of respect for the author's fine ideas, however, certain purifications have been made in the original submission on the principle that, in the Editor's words, GOOD WRITING KNOWS NO TRICKS, SO THAT HE WHO SHUNS MAY HEED.)

On a high-humidity evening in October, shortly after a rainfall, a certain nervous gentleman undertakes a visit, passing through a bad section of town. Arriving at his destination, the unhappy man overhears ladies discussing an artist well-known in history (Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564, Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet). Our friend contemplates his personal diffidence, his baldness, his suit and tie, and the fact that he is rather underweight. He notes with some dissatisfaction that he is usually addressed in conventional phrases. He cannot make a decision. He believes his life has not been well-spent; indeed, he feels himself to be no better than a mere arthropod (of the shelled aquatic class, which includes lobsters, shrimps, crabs, barnacles, and wood lice). He has been subjected to many social hours timidly drinking tea, for, though he secretly wishes to impress others, he does not know how to do so. He realizes he is an insignificant individual, with a small part to play in the world. He is distressed that he will soon be eligible for an old age home, and considers the advisability of a fruit diet and of permitting himself a greater relaxation in dress, as well as perhaps covering his bald spot. Thus, in low spirits, in a markedly irrational frame of mind, he imagines he is encountering certain mythological females, and in his own words he makes it clear that he is doubtless in need of the aid of a reliable friend or kindly minister. (As are, it goes without saying, all of us.)