an escape...

from “Tradition and Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot

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.

It is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences 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 deliberations.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.



How very like Eliot to want an escape from emotion. To want an escape from the prison of his own stiff and choking personality. That would certainly make living through the day possible for him – but, I think he’s correct even if the reasoning is wrong – wrong in the sense of being focused on turning away from rather than turning to. Murder in the Cathedral is a good example of writing that springs from this war with the self ... doing the right thing, but for the wrong reason. It is, in fact, his escape, his turning away from, that makes possible The Waste Land – a necessary masterpiece bent on a looking back.

This is not to say that that riding the emotion will not allow the writer to reach greatness. Example: Kerouac. But the same emotional forces that pushed him there tore him to apart in the end. If On the Road had never been published, Kerouac would have continued to experiment and to explore new rivers of prose and poetry. The result, in my opinion, would have been greater than Shakespeare or Melville. He would have continued his literary quest – a quest for no one other than himself – as did Dickinson.

Being snubbed by publication and public readers was, in truth, the greatest gift Dickinson could have hoped for. Her genius, no doubt, would have allowed her to overcome a weak and parasitic public, but the work and the gain would have been much more difficult and much less satisfying to her.


Suzanne said...


C. E. Chaffin said...

My, my, Sam, I always think of you as sort of a Shelby Foote character wearing a sweater in a library with a pleasant refined accent, but today you are one opinionated SOB, yes? Sea change, or have I just missed this side of you?

As for Eliot, strangely he did achieve in his "correlatives" emotions that are not ordinary emotions; "bats with baby faces," "and the lotos rose," "with a little patience"--he had the facility for making phrases that made language into something that nearly stops time, in Aiken's words, "That ring in the mind like a silver coin." I agree in this, however, that it was not escape from emotion he achieved but transformation of emotion into some kind of meta-emotion or subconscious impression, something he learned from the Symbolists. The pathos of one shoe by the road, for instance, speaks for itself. And what about those pairs of old tennis shoes one frequently sees, here and in Mexico, strung over a telephone wire above? Another image which, when combined with others in a poem, can have an effect beyond any normal emotion. I think Eliot opposed easy emotion, not just because of his own emotional limitations, but because it had been so overdone by the Romantics and Victorians. Exclamation points had been almost entirely devalued by the end of the 19th century.

I never knew you held Kerouac in such high esteem, then I don't understand your high opinion of Nick Drake, either, as I noted below, though to be fair I need to hear more of his work. Perhaps I am more critical of the latter as I am err.. a musician and songwriter. (Someday I'll put some recordings on the net, just haven't got around to it yet. Then you can see if I have any talent or am just another wannabe.)

Back to my mild shock: I find your opinion of Kerouac extreme. I thought if he had lived without dissipating himself he might have become a sort of pre-Vonnegut voice for absurdity, but no Melville or Shakespeare, certainly, not even close.

And as regards Dickinson, here's from an article:

"Although Higginson was astounded by Dickinson's originality and encouraged her literary aspirations, he advised her not to publish. He called Emily "my partially cracked poetess at Amherst". Dickinson's decision to follow the advise was influenced by her ambivalent attitude toward her role as a woman writer and desire to protect her privacy, to live in her self-imposed exile."

I could tilt either way on how she would have done as a recognized poet. It might have been good for her art to socialize more. Seems if Higginson hadn't messed with her style Emily might have gone ahead with publication, but she was too shy to insist, obviously... easier to disappear to one's bedroom and dress in white. How infuriating of her! Poets just aren't supposed to behave like that, you know?

Another surprise: You don't seem to like Eliot much as a person, though you generally speak well of everyone, at least in my hearing.

"To want an escape from the prison of his own stiff and choking personality. That would certainly make living through the day possible for him–" LOL!

And I don't think TWL was much of a masterpiece. More of a curious experiment that half succeeds. It should have had more editing IMNSHO. Here's the link should you ever want to sample my take:


Or you can always just go to the "prose" link of my new website, cechaffin.com

Thanks for all your truly absorbing comments at my blog. Trying to return the favor here somewhat. Not that I don't come here anyway!

As for the Simic poem, do you think the cliche's were intentional, to increase the feeling of being lost in language as well?

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks for the read – and the clapping – Suzanne.

And CE, Simic's use of the cliché is intentional. Yes. I've always felt that he's the perfected model of Collins' aspirations.

I do like Eliot as a person. He was tormented, but that's because of his shapeshifting persona - an Englishman as business-man who happens to write poetry. He needed that persona - mask - to be able to write. But it tormented him. I also like Eliot as a poet, though I recognize that he and Pound were obstructions to the modern. Their classicism worked against the modern voice. And that's ok by me. I understand it. Their role was in looking back. That was needed.

I couldn’t possibly agree with you on TWL. My heart won't let me. I love Four Quartets but the writing doesn't have the fire.

I think Dickinson refused all expected roles as a writer. Higginson's advice, I think, was because he believed a writer should have an audience, and her style would not have one. He didn’t really understand the how or the why of her writing. To be published - without an editorial rape - was not possible. He believed that. To be more a social creature would, perhaps, have been better for Emily the person - but would have been destructive to Emily the poet. That would have been the most difficult of obstacles for the writer in her to overcome.

The 19th cent. - or even the first half of the 20th - wasn't ready for her works. The true Dickinson, hitting the shelves in the mid-1950's, was embraced, most probably, because splitting the atom changed everything.

Obviously I can't agree with you on Kerouac. Or Drake for that matter. I'll have to stand by my views of both. Let’s call it a personal choice.

I appreciate your read and your comments.

C. E. Chaffin said...

Shorely, dude.

Pris said...

I enjoyed the post, Sam. Thinking is vastly underrated by too many:-)

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks for the read, Pris.

Cheryl Dodds said...

I couldn't help but grin at c.e. chaffin's first paragraph. Having met you once 7 or 8 years ago when I interviewed you for a journal, I'd have to say you fit the Shelby Foote character much better than you do the "opinionated SOB" character. But even that image is distant from the man I sat and chatted with in Tennessee those years ago. Though we likely sat in a small town or roadside restaurant drinking coffee, somehow I still picture you sitting in a room bare of distraction, an open door leading to the ocean, candle burning on a simple wooden desk, and music turning the pages as your words alternately stumble and flow from your pen.

As for TS Eliot... he came into my life in my late teens, knocking me to my knees to crawl from rural Ohio whimpering in the broken glass searching for the voice to scream. Over the decades, from time to time I have rattled the windows with screaming and banging. And I smile as I say that.

Would it be so outlandish to know nothing about art, yet understand more about a painting, to find more meaning in the painting than the critic?

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Has it really been 7 or 8 years, Cheryl? Too long. And now there's an ocean or two...

The simple wooden desk - That's about right.

I really like your thoughts about your reaction to Eliot. Wow to that.

Sometimes - maybe even a large portion of the time - knowledge of or feelings for the arts can block the way. The critic can - though not always - take the very life, the fire, out of the works.

Thanks for the comment.