Monday, June 9, 2014

T.S.Eliot, cultural, social criticism and why poets should stick to poetry

The history of poetry is littered with defences which make wild claims for the power of an abstraction called Poetry. I’ve traced this though numerous previous posts.  One of the great Ironies is that the epitome of the modern public poet, T.S.Eliot, is a perfect example of why the idea that writing poetry gives the writer some kind of privileged status, is, to put it politely, nonsense.

T.S. Eliot’s Intellectual Development (1972) by  James Margolis is a study of an intelligent, articulate man, with a refined skill in the arrangement of words, wanting to do more than just arrange words.  Eliot’s career highlights the dilemma; intelligent and articulate he may have been, deeply committed, after 1928 to the issue of Christian Witness, he most certainly way: but Eliot, by his own admission, was not an expert in Theology, or Economics, or Education. And the fact he wrote some of the most memorable poetry of the twentieth century could not underwrite his opinions on anything other than poetry. 
In his preface Margolis points out:
Though he had many penetrating observations on these topics [education, politics, religion, literature], he was not a systematic thinker with comprehensive theories. His remarks –and especially those on literature –are often more valuable for the light they cast on Eliot’s own thinking as the time then for the contribution they make to the fields they concern. (pxv)

Margolis quotes a letter from June 1934 from Eliot to Paul Elmer More: ”I am not a systematic thinker, if indeed I am a thinker at all. I depend upon intuitions and perceptions: an although I may have some skill in the barren game of controversy: [I] have little capacity for sustained, exact and closely knit argument and reasoning.” (qtd Margolis, 1976, p.xv)

In 1934 Eliot wrote: “At the present time, I am not very much interested in the only subject which I am supposed to be qualified to write about: that is, one kind of literary criticism. I am not very much interested in literature, except dramatic literature: and I am largely interested in subjects which I do not yet know very much about: theology, politics, economics and education.” (qtd Margolis, 19176, p177)

If Eliot has lost interest in literature, part of the reason had to be that for someone like himself, who didn’t just want to reinterpret society, but to change it, it was obvious that poetry was the wrong vehicle.

“Of what use is this experimenting with rhythms and words, this effort to find the precise metric and the exact image to set down feelings which, if communicable at all, can be communicated to so few that the result seems insignificant compared to the labour.” (Eliot, ‘Christianity and communism’ Listener, 16 March 932, p.382 qtd Margolis 184)

I think this question should be answered by anyone who wants to pretend poetry is a vehicle for changing the world in the 21st century.

The essential dilemma that Eliot faced is that of an articulate, intelligent individual, who cares passionately and wants to change the world, but whose distinction is the ability to arrange words in patterns on the page. To misquote Bunting’s phrase, in a democracy, poets have no more power than anyone else with the vote, and Eliot as social critic was nothing more (or less) than an intelligent eloquent man with opinions. Those opinions had no more or less value than any other intelligent and eloquent individual’s. When not directly about poetry, those opinions could not be underwritten by his poetry, and his amateur status in the fields of theology, economics and education, would be easily exposed. 


kenand66 said...

This seems quite a lot of words (and commas) to state something fairly obvious: no one's opinion is worth more than someone else's. But, what you fail to mention is that some people's opinions bear
"Some lineament or character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part."
[Wallace Stevens]
This would make some opinions valuable above those with less connection to the world. Some of Eliot's opinions, particularly those on literary and aesthetic matters, are quite valuable; his social and political statements, far, far less so.
What seems to have happened here is that you've stated your own opinion (for what that's worth) about reading and reacting to Margolis's book. But that opinion, in kind, offers no sure benefit beyond utterance. It is one of so many stones thrown onto the field. Poetry certainly does not underwrite a poet's social criticism--indeed, upon close examination, it may do just the opposite. It does so tellingly in Eliot's case, often at the beginning of each major phase of his career. One is left, ultimately, with the poem--in this case, perhaps, a single poem:


You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.
(Warsaw, 1945)

Liam Guilar said...

I disagree that 'no one's opinion is worth more than someone else's' but so does kenand66 because on reflection it's an untenable position. Eliot's opinions on poetry are underwritten by the depth of his knowledge and the time he spent thinking and arguing about it and therefore worth a great deal more than someone who hasn't got that background knowledge. You may not agree with him, but you know he's worth considering. His opinions on education or theology are not underwritten by the same knowledge and therefore not worth as much.