On Poetry

Eliot – On Poetry

Language #

My words echo

Thus, in your mind.

Poetry can resonate and hypnotise the responder.

…… words strain,

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still ………. Brunt Norton - 1936.

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still. Ash Wednesday

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

“Art to express the world as it is - its purpose to understand ourselves.”

“to purify the dialect of the tribe”.

Emotions are sometimes too complex for simple rational language and the thoughts too deep for intellectual articulation. For this reason, Poets resort to metaphor, images, rhythm, style and myth.

Not the expression of personality, but the escape of personality.

The progress of an artist is the continual extinction of personality.

Art cannot be interpreted, only judged according to standards.

The more perfect the artist, the more separate the man who suffers and the man who creates.

“Good poets borrow; great poets steal”

“I wish I could attain the same kind of suffering as Beethoven’s last Quartets”.

Eliot later examined the ineffability of communication in *The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock* where he has his persona admit:

“That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all."

*And this, and so much more? — It is impossible to say just what I mean! But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:


Poetry has no message; it merely records time and events with great verse.

All noble human endeavor should be in pursuit of true Judgment.


Words are inadequate to express extreme sorrow, pain, rage or the horror of war in the trenches, the holocaust, Hiroshima…

[TS Eliot] talks about ‘the stillness of a work of art’.

“Poetry can communicate before it is understood”

This is illustrated by Robert Cormier in *The Chocolate War* (p. 96)

Jerry opened his locker. He had thumbtacked a poster to the back wall of the locker on the first day of school. The poster showed a wide expanse of beach, a sweep of sky with a lone star glittering far away. A man walked on the beach, a small solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared — “Do I dare disturb the universe”? by Eliot, who wrote the *Waste Land* (?) thing they were studying in English.

Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.


The suggestive, sub-conscious, emotional and intuitive power of images appeal to us, rather than rational meaning. Through stream of consciousness and the free association of ideas exploring the psychological effects of unexpected random thought we come to appreciate the complexity of life and its lack of coherence.

Discipline and restraint save Eliot from sentimentality.

Like Donne, his images are unusually startling.

“It is impossible to say just what I mean.” Prufrock.

Poetry should be measured not by external standards or surface experiences, but by the deepest experience of what it means to be a human being and to be ourselves.

Words within words, the eternal word not able to speak a word. Archbishop Lancelot Andrewes 1618.

*Gerontion* – words which baffle us with their self-repeating, as they echo back and forth. Language can never show what it has to say, an incapacity to express the full range of emotions in the human condition. Robin Grove

As did the Metaphysicals, Modernists attempted to make rational sense of our complex emotional and irrational psychological needs and desires, objectively. Needs are instinctive, demanding and implacable – if we try to suppress them, neurosis can result. Desires, cravings, longings, yearnings… can be controlled and mastered.

Eliot’s poetry reveals a troubled soul. Much of it can be seen as self-discovery like Elizabeth Bishop’s, an admirer, following his example, it disinvites private scrutiny, because of its detachment, cool objectivity, its calm impersonality, what Marianne Moore described as its “rational considering quality” (hardly the usual praise for poetry), its “deferences and vigilances.” What the young poet deferred to was poetic form and an increasingly old-fashioned sense of manners and discretion. She was vigilant in giving nothing of herself away. Eliot seldom reveals his true self, but we can discern it by looking at recurrent portraits.

A picture emerges of an acute mind, but physically and socially awkward. A superior/inferior complex?

There is a prevailing subterranean inadequacy – almost masochistic, near self-loathing thread evident in Prufrock,* socially unsure; Gerontion* - abjectly insignificant but especially in The Waste Land* sexually frustrated.*** He appears sexually attracted to, but also repulsed by women and censorious of men’s predatory pursuit of sex. The fact he was rejected by the army may have added to his physical inadequacy. The fact that is idol, Bertrand Russell shares his wife may have tipped him over the edge to a mental breakdown. Who knows?

Good poets borrow; Great Poets steal

‘Everything is copy’ – Nora Ephron’s famous dictum.

Poetry: the best words in the best order. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is music, and nothing but music. Words with musical emphasis.

Amiri Baraka

Poetry is a matter of life, not just a matter of language. Lucille Clifton

Poetry is not a matter of feelings, it is a matter of language. It is language which creates feelings.

If I understand a play the first time I see it, I become suspicious. It must not be a good play. Umberto Eco

Love is the poetry of the senses. Honore de Balzac

In poetry, you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all. Wallace Stevens

Valerie: There was a little boy in him that had never been released. Cats may have released it.

The Role of the Critic #

It is vitally important to realise that good works of art are complex, ambiguous, conflicted and problematic – they do not provide answers, merely raise important issues many of which are not resolved. No one is an absolute authority on interpretation of the text and each reader has as much entitlement to adopt a view as the next. T.S. Eliot put it thus:

“The reader’s interpretation may be different from the author’s and be equally valid – it may even be better. There may be much more in a poem than the author is aware of. “

Eliot also claimed that “criticism is inevitable as breathing, and we we should be none the worse for articulating what passes through our minds as we read”.

Oscar Wilde pointed out: “To the critic the work of art is simply a suggestion for a new work of his own, that need not necessarily bear any obvious resemblance to the thing it criticises”. Also: The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.

**Coleridge: “**Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers etc. if they could; they have tried their talents and failed so they become critics”.

Criticism is a pejorative misnomer for someone who describes, analyses and evaluates literature, food, art, music or any other human endeavour. Though they have been around since early times – even before Plato and Aristotle, their heyday began in the 1920’s to about the 1990’s when their influence was eroded by the proliferation of commentary on the internet.1 Many scholars feel we suffer from an implosion of opinion that has smothered authoritative and informed criticism.

During the fifties and early sixties some literary critics enjoyed the exalted position of undisputed or infallible authorities on selected works of art. Students merely had to cite and conform to their views to receive top marks. Since the seventy’s views have broadened and today students are expected to seek a more wide-ranging view, look at contrasting or dialectical points of evaluations and then “think for themselves”. The purpose of education is not to teach students what to think, but how to think for themselves!

‘Nothing replaces the reader’s responses: the sound of poetry on both the outer and inner ear, the visions of fiction in the mind’s eye, the kinaesthetic assault of total theatre’ Handbook of Criticism – Guerin.

Regardless, the authoritative critic still fulfils an important role in our understanding of a work of art. Their training in acceptable standards, accumulated wisdom and insights can open new vistas to lead us to a greater appreciation of literature often triggering an original response. Though the creative power is considered superior to the critical, well informed criticism can illuminate subtle nuances, allusions or symbolism. Matthew Arnold claimed that “the study of literature gives you the best vantage point from which to understand an entire society”.

Early critics were hard on Eliot: trying to outdo each other in deprecating callow poets:

The Times Literary Supplement, on June 21, 1917 review of T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock had this unsigned criticism:

“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”.

A 1943 letter to Lord Alfred Douglas:It would be amusing to compile a sampling of the abuse this generation directed at Eliot about 1925 – 1945.

Following the publication of the *Waste Land* in 1922 a Times reviewer wrote:

“This poem was sometime very near the limits of coherency. It was widely felt to be a scandalous affair”.

“wondered whether Eliot had ever composed three consecutive lines of poetry in his life?” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:

Eliot enjoyed pondering a discrimination rather than formulating or maintaining it. His poems are dramatized meditations rather than philosophical treatises. I.A. Richards

Eliot reaches darkly into the depths of emotional experience where the conscious mind cannot go. Northrop Frye

human kind cannot bear very much reality”

Echoing Kant’s “Happiness is not an ideal of reason, but of imagination.”

Now that I have abandoned my search for truth, I’m looking around for a good fantasy. Ashleigh Brilliant

For survival, we need some self-deception and useful delusions.

Chaucer and Shakespeare adapted previous tales even plagiarizing their sources verbatim.

Language is not immutable.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language* And next year’s words await another voice.”

“What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning.”*

Tones: varied; whimsical, gently ironic, depicting degeneration.

​ Mixture of sharp critical observations/ sympathetic nostalgic, poignant.

Are we are not living in an oppressive patriarchy?

Brits had a television show called That Was The Week That Was. It was a confected catalogue of absurdities, mischiefs and embarrassments delivered with all that sarcasm and parody could provide.

People with mental disorders lose the defence mechanisms to deal with their fears or to mask their condition. They “fail to prepare a face to meet the faces they meet”. Eliot