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This item is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.

IT IS A CENTURY (June 1917) since the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations. The news of the poems has stayed news. They challenge new readers but remain accessible, various, memorable in phrase and cadence. The young man of ‘The Love Song’, ‘Portrait of a Lady’ and ‘La Figlia che Piange’ becomes more comical as we grow more knowing. But how many tones he emits, from stutter to the full elegy that sounds before human voices wake us! The Observations are open, uncertain; each time the reader enters at a different angle, finds a new inflection and arrives – not at paraphrase but at enactments that touch our own troubled midnight and noon’s repose.

2017 also marks the publication of The Letters of T.S. Eliot volume vii, over eight hundred pages of text and annotation for 1934 and 1935, edited by the poet’s late widow and the indefatigable John Haffenden. Reading these two years, we share Eliot’s once-present tense in which he is doing things that will shape our literary world. On 5 January 1934 he writes to Marianne Moore to suggest a new, expanded selection of her poems ‘to be put on the London market again’. This is followed, on the same day, by a letter to Harriet Weaver about the possibility of publishing Ulysses, an earlier attempt, by the Egoist Press, having been frustrated by the Home Office and the Customs who seized it as ‘obscene’. Two days later he writes to Ezra Pound, in a playful spirit, that if he is coarse (his caps), ‘as my old friend Winthrop Sprague Brooks used to say, I’ll be horse-fucked.’ Haffenden tells us about Mr Brooks but does not expand on ‘horse-fucked’. Eliot threatens Pound with a subscription to the Adelphi, and appends some light verses that include buggery and arse. A fever-chart of tones registers in his letters, from decorous and formal to Sweeneyesque, tones he may temper and outgrow as these volumes (another fifteen?) advance towards 1965, when he died. In 1934 and 1935 the range of correspondents widens, degrees of intimacy develop. There are sharp transitions between the publisher’s, magazine editor’s and writer’s letters. The magazine editor is blunt. Yeats’s agent, for example, is told, ‘the rates of the Criterion are £2 per thousand words. These rates are invariable, and are what Mr Yeats has received from us before; we have never made any exceptions on favour of distinguished authors.’

Several correspondents and acquaintances of 1934–5 corresponded with PN Review almost half a century later, among them Janet Adam Smith, George Barker, Ronald Bottrall, Sir Maurice Bowra, Basil Bunting, William Empson, Gavin Ewart, David Gascoyne, F.T. Prince, I.A. Richards, Anne Ridler and Stephen Spender. Some of his close colleagues – Peter du Sautoy in particular – were crucial in our formation. In the 1934–5 letters a major poet is crowded out by a minor dramatist, but the great editor works clear-headedly on our behalf.

On one side of a high wall, possibly the wall that divides Mexico from the United States, painted in bold capital letters on a white ground, are the words TAMBIEN DE ESTE LADO HAY SUEÑOS (‘On this side too there are dreams’), signed by Acción Poética. It’s unusual to see a signed graffito. The dreamer is the Mexican poet Armando Alanís Pulido, nicknamed ‘el bardo de las bardas’ (‘the bard of the barriers’), recently recognised by the Congress of the northern State of Monterrey, where he was born in 1969, for his impact in as many as two hundred cities in thirty countries.

As a painter (never a sprayer) of graffiti, he is known (if not by name) beyond the society of poets, though he is author of approaching thirty publications and an advocate of Mexican poetry. Early in life he could not resist white walls. Usually political parties or advertisers beat him to them. Armando Alanís’s scaled up little poems communicate differently: they give, don’t sell. They provide for passers-by, on foot or in vehicles inching through traffic jams, condensed dramas. KISS ME / I’LL EXPLAIN LATER, says one. Above a burned-out car, a one-off: ARDO POR TI (‘I burn for you’). More generally applicable, the couplets MAS AMOR / POR FAVOR and TU BOCA/CONVOCA hardly require translation. The Congress award cites ‘his desire to give meaning and transcendence to urban space’, an urban space dominated by narcotics gangs, infected with crime. His graffiti subversively affirm. SIN POESÍA / NO HAY CIUDAD (‘without poetry, there’s no city’) is his signature poem. He is not above repeating himself: that’s what publishing does, after all.

Poetry books find few readers; poets draw modest audiences. Armando Alanís has found a way to address people directly. They take in a poem without shuddering, ‘poetry’. Though on a small scale, his poems are bold: sparks that might start fires. Word-play, rhythm and form are clear in a dramatic aphorism or re-animated cliché. A dual-language collection of ‘wall-poems’, Images to Read, with photographs by Eduardo Machuca-Torres, is available. There is also a free Acción Poética app. Armando Alanís’s movement attracts other poets to publish wall-poems under Acción Poética’s aegis. Some devise arty lettering at odds with the original four-square drive towards immediacy.

Now he’s famous, white spaces are provided in galleries or primed for him in public places. The lonely vandalism of an inspired youth settles into civic entertainment. The ‘wall-poem’, now a genre in Latin America, suffocates in gallery air. The originals, even if painted over, remain suspended in the memories of those who lived with them: TODO ES PUERTA/ TODO ES PUENTE (‘everything’s a door / everything’s a bridge’) sounds like the advice the Pope gave to Mr Trump. Well, CASI TODO ES / OTRA COSA (‘almost everything is / something else’).

On 28 September 1917, as Prufrock was being reviewed, T.E. Hulme, who left his economical mark on Eliot and on modern poetry, was blown up by a shell in France. We could attribute the invention of the ‘wall poem’ – a young man’s form – to him: ‘Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling.’

This item is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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