Monday, October 25, 2010

"Tradition And The Individual Talent" by T. S. Eliot

I've thought about this essay and the deep claims it makes about poetry for a long time—all my life, it seems—and every time I read it I feel as if I'm missing the point. And yet the main point is clear enough: it's the poetry, stupid; if you don't know how to read it, as poetry, no amount of biographical information about the poet will help you out. This essay is aimed at bad critics i.e. people who confuse art and life.

Here is a fairly brief paraphrase of the essay which will contain much of Eliot's language (without quotation marks) and some ad-libbing of my own.

"No poet," says Eliot, "no artist of any art has his complete significance alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation the poets and artists that have preceded him; he cannot be valued alone, but must set be set for comparison and contrast among his predecessors. Indeed no poet that knows what he is doing is ever unconscious of the poets of the past—not if he is a true poet. To become a true poet, he must develop or procure, at whatever cost in labor and time, a consciousness of he past and he most continue to develop this consciousness of the past throughout his career.

"What happens in a true poet is a continual surrender of himself to something that is more valuable. The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation are directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry . . . the poet has not a personality to express but a particular medium . . . in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and and experiences that are important for the man may take not place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality . . . .

"It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting . . .  The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. Consequently, we must believe that [Wordsworth's phrase] "emotion recollected in tranquillity" is an inexact formula. For it is not neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is a concentration and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a great number of experience which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation . . . . the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him "personal." Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality.

"There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, but there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. Very few know where there is an expression of significant emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal and the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself to the work to be done.

"The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates."

I said, above, that this essay is aimed at bad critics; out of it, the so-called New Criticism of the 20th century was born. But the claim Eliot is making for the complete separation of art and life, of "the man who suffers and the mind which creates," is so radical that I wonder if there may be something else going on. I'm wondering if Eliot is trying to get at something central to modernist art in general: the discrediting of the object. That was Kandinsky's revelation when he saw an exhibition of impressionist art for the for the first time at an exhibition in Moscow in 1891 (See my earlier posting on
3/5/10). Eliot's earlier poetry "discredits" the subjective self; there isn't any. The first person pronoun, 'I' which is so important in Romantic poetry, never appears. In The Waste Land, Eliot achieves what he has been aiming at all along, the discrediting of the object. That poem is a symbolist poem in which words have meaning but not references to a real world outside the poem. William Pritchard (The Lives Of The Modern Poets) makes this point in his chapter on Eliot (p. 109) and quotes  Denis Donoghue:

"At first, the words seem to denote things . . . but it soon appears that their allegiance to reality is deceptive, they are traitors in reality. So far as the relation between word and object is deceptive, so far also is 'objective reality' undermined. The only certainty is that the absence in reality has been effected by the words, and now the same words are enforcing themselves as the only presence. What we respond to is the presence of the words."

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