Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Toughness and the Impersonal Personality of Poetry

Jeanette Winterson, writing in today's Guardian about TS Eliot, argues (from her own experience) that poetry, far from being 'merely a luxury for the educated middle classes' offers tough language for tough lives (and indeed suggests that those who argue otherwise must have 'had things pretty easy'.)

As usual her thoughts are very quotable, including this passage which struck me particularly:
Eliot himself liked to talk about "impersonality" as a necessary virtue in a poet, but we should not misunderstand him. In his 1927 essay "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca", he muses on Shakespeare's "struggle to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, universal and impersonal".

In the land of reality TV and confessional talk shows, Eliot's wish to withdraw the personal from his poetry - from any poetry - is easy to misread. But the paradox of the best writing is that while the writer's voice is unmistakable, the writer has somehow performed the Indian rope trick and disappeared [my italics]. Celebrity culture can't imagine anyone wanting to disappear, or that such a thing might be necessary. Now, when we are told that everything depends on our "personality", it seems strange to hear Eliot saying, as he does in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", that "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. But of course only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things."

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