"An age which reads in a hurry and likes to understand familiar meanings with headline speed has accused [T.S.] Eliot of being obscure," wrote Time magazine of Thomas Stearns Eliot, author of The Waste Land and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Obscure? You think? The guy opened his poems with lines like, "S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse"—which, just in case you didn't catch it, is not even in English. In the 434 lines of The Waste Land, Eliot refers to six different languages and to 35 different authors, mostly people you have never heard of. Oh, and the "age which reads in a hurry" that Time magazine was talking about? That was written in 1950. In an era where we hardly have time to check our Twitter feed, isn't it time to retire Mister Obscure, T.S. Eliot, from the required reading list?
Honestly, we may need him now more than ever. Though it's hard to believe while you're muddling through The Waste Land at 11 o'clock at night, Eliot did not write poetry specifically to make future generations of students miserable. He wrote in order to process the nightmares he saw unfolding around him. He saw an entire generation of young people debilitated by the waste and horror of World War I, and then watched German bombs rain down on his beloved London in -World War II. Eliot believed passionately in the power of poetry, and he believed above all else that poetry should represent life. Life is hard, so poetry must be tough too, he argued. "The reader of a poem should take at least as much trouble as a barrister reading a decision on a complicated case,"3 Eliot once said. He knew that to really engage with the complex horrors of modern life, we have to challenge ourselves to think harder, or we run the risk of tuning out completely. Think about it. The economy is a disaster. America is rumbling through two different wars it's not sure it can win. There's no guarantee of what the future will look like for you and your children, and that's frightening and maddening and motivating all at once. Can you sum up your deepest feelings on that in a few breezy sentences?
Eliot's verses gave a voice to a generation that often had no words for what it saw happening around it. "He is the key figure of our century in America and England, the most powerful single influence," said writer Robert Penn Warren after Eliot's death in 1965. "This is his age. He gave us the sense of the culture crisis of the Western world, when we were suddenly thrown on our own in a different way than ever before."4 The truth of Eliot's poetry still applies, even in our modern world where we have a million different ways to communicate but still aren't sure what to say. Even if he makes zero sense to you now, don't give up. You might return to Eliot's poems at a different time and find out that he was right all along.