Our little systems have their day

My wife has been taking a MOOC on poetry  (that would be a massive open-enrolled on-line course).  The lectures are first rate and she has spent some time posting her own efforts and responding to the efforts of other enrollees.  Occasionally we will fall into a conversation about literature or poetic styles.  

So it was the other day that I found myself briefly discussing the concept of an "objective correlative,"  T. S. Eliot's notion that one must submerge strong feeling in art in "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events" that evoke those feelings implicitly rather than explicitly.  

In other words, don't write about the fact that your father, with whom you had many issues, died two weeks ago.  Instead write about going out to mow the lawn at his now empty house and being unable to start his crummy, garage sale-bought mower.   Write about the smell of a flooded engine, the broken choke, your own cursing.  

Don't mention watching his vital signs go down slowly or seeing his last breath in the CCU, or the silence in the room afterward and how you felt numb for hours and then, finally, while taking out the garbage after dinner that night, found yourself suddenly quivering with sobs that rose up from the depths like geological eruptions.  Indeed, don't mention the dying man at all.  Just go on and on about how small and innocuous the second shot of morphine looked or how efficiently the young critical care nurse inserted it into the stint.

In Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot reminds us that "poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion" and the "more perfect the artist, the more completely separate will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates."  

A part of me wants to denounce this as nonsense.  One thinks of the great elegies: Auden on the death of Yeats, Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead, or the elegies of the ancients.  For heaven's sake, the ancients.  What about Catullus at the tomb of his brother?

...here are these merely conventional things,
traditional sad funeral offerings:
take them — all wet with your brother's tears..

He doesn't specify those conventional funeral objects.  It's the tears that have wetted them. It's the tears.

I have a lot of problems with Eliot--always have--but I have to admit he's nailed it. You just shouldn't write about the things you feel. You should write about something else. Anything else.

Maybe poetry or the objective correlative or even god-damned T. S. Eliot.


Anti-Dada said…
That's bizarre, the idea of not writing poetry about feelings. I can understand a need to diversify, to not be entirely lost in feeling, but to eliminate feelings from poetry entirely is ridiculous. Eliot was Catholic, extremely religious, and I think he was under the influence of religious asceticism, a self-denying stoicism. One poet's perspective, though.

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