Suppose we take Joseph Harris back to Paris around 1910 where T.S. Eliot was rewriting his Prufrock poem in his journal at the Lilas café’. Ezra Pound orates in sweeping gesture at the journal on the table, “I’m telling you my friend,” declares Pound, “this is the best poem I have seen from an American.” He shakes Eliot’s thin shoulder, “and I’m going to see to it you get it published.” As Pound leaves, Harris appears and looks to the empty chair. Harris smiles broadly showing his teeth through a full white mustache. “May I?” he asks Eliot, who sits across the table rather primly, his manner more of a middle-age cleric than a twenty-year old.
After Eliot frankly looks over Harris’ odd vestments; a broad diamond tie in turquoise and teal, and raises an eyebrow at a formal tailored suit, T.S. points to the empty chair, “Yes, I would like more conversation. Revision is wearying me. I’m T. Stearns Eliot. You may call me T.S. And you are? You’re from?”
After small talk, T.S. is interested to hear about Joseph’s career teaching young writers. Harris explains he recently published a book called Rewriting, which is intended to help intellectual writers make more interesting use of texts they read in the essays they write. “I wonder what you think of the idea that essays are written from many other essays? And, is it possible even that poems contain other poems? In my book, I name a writing move “taking an approach.” It is a move in which the writer transforms, or reshapes work, by taking on the perspective of another – acknowledging the influence – even writing in the mode of another. If I may quote page 96, “For it is in thinking through your stance toward those writers who matter the most to you that you will begin to form your own voice as an intellectual.”
Eliot smiles. “Interesting. In that way, I would say that your approach might be relevant to mine…if you can get at the style of my thinking about poetry — the “modernism” as Pound and my friends are calling it. This Prufrock poem is a succession of moments I wrote, as my contemporary imagists work: [he reads]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 And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question … Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit. In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo.
Eliot then explains that he is revising his epigraph, changing it to a verse from Dante’s Inferno. He shows Harris [the translation] copied in his journal:“If I but thought that my response were made to one perhaps returning to the world, this tongue of flame would cease to flicker. But since, up from these depths, no one has yet returned alive, if what I hear is true, I answer without fear of being shamed.”
Eliot leans in, appreciating that Harris is familiar with the Dante text [and probably more familiar with T.S. Eliot’s poem than he is at this point] – “What would you say I am doing here?”
“You might be forwarding. Or you may be taking an approach.”
“Yes, I’m not using Dante’s style, but I do take a point of view from his work. And that view permeates the poem. In the Inferno, Guido, never intends his story to be told. So by quoting Guido, I offer my view of Prufrock’s love song at the outset indirectly. Discreetly. But, more about your book.”
Harris explains that he teaches, not the classical method of composition, but the modern way of writing – encouraging students to discover subjects they care about and to find their own voice. “So my book is about four kinds of moves, metatext, or writing about one’s writing, which I notice you do from time to time in your poem, commenting on the difficulty of words and that of saying precisely what you mean. This fourth move we’re discussing is much more than the first three. An easy version is when the writer can speak directly to his reader saying, ‘Here’s why I’m approaching this subject this way and here are the influences from what I’ve read.’ But taking an approach is really developed over a long time. This reflection goes beyond a painter quoting another painter…beyond an allusion in one poem to another literary work.” Harris leans back and both are quiet.
“Is taking an approach both what an artist and a critic does, I wonder?” murmurs Eliot. Tapping a page in his journal, Eliot says, “I listen to language as it is spoken around me, then I extend and improve upon what I heard.” Eliot paused, “My first duty is not to other literature, but to language itself. There’s no method to my writing…except extend and preserve by rewriting, revising, rewriting what I hear, what I read and what I think.”
Eliot goes on, almost to himself. “It really isn’t a love song, but a title of Kipling’s that is stuck in my head. In any case, (sighs) I write:And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.
Harris is an astute listener. Eliot runs his finger over the lines and rereads, “And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions.”
Politely closing their conversation with thanks, Joseph Harris takes his thoughts back to his hotel room, where he tries to take on the way T.S. Eliot is working in this soon-to-be published poem. He writes:Let us rewrite then, you and I, when the papers are spread out on the table like a…hm, like a something-like a leftover buffet on a warm afternoon. Let us go through generous and skeptical streets Streets of honest intent, Meant to lead us to the overriding question What is it? Do not ask or encroach… Let us go and take an approach.
[Harris groans and laughs…]
Note: Later, in June 1917 The Egoist, published a pamphlet entitled Prufrock and Other Observations (London), containing twelve poems by Eliot. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was the first in the volume. Its reception in London, included reviews like, “The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry.”
(Elbowesque response: Pretend that the author of this passage has a conversation with another author, one preferably from another century. Write about what their meeting might reveal)