The Publishing of T.S. Eliot's Correspondence: What is Life's Poetry Without Irony?

The Publishing of T.S. Eliot's Correspondence: What is Life's Poetry Without Irony?

Volume 8 of Eliot's letters has now been published by Faber & Faber, and the poet who preached the irrelevance of a work's author once again eludes self-limitation.

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T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Often said to be the chief representative of modernist poetry, he is also considered by many to be the most significant poet of the 20th century.

Author of "The Waste Land", "Four Quartets", and "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats", he is both endlessly enjoyed and endlessly debated.


T.S. Eliot, for the sake of his fans and for that of academics with a vested interest in his legacy, now has his life further displayed to the eyes of the world. The massive project of publishing his correspondence has reached its eighth volume, and two more years of his life (1936-1938) are now further open to scrutiny. The supreme irony here is that Eliot, who stipulated in his will that there never be a biography written of him, would not have thought very kindly of the idea of prying into his personal life in order to interpret his poetry.

In fact, he preached an entire theory of poetry opposed to such an idea.

In his 1919 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", he argues at length that, when judging the value of a work of poetry, the work's authorship is totally irrelevant. The reader should value the work in and of itself. Thus we arrive at a purer form of encountering art, one supposes; this was a solemn creed for the modernists. The reader of Joyce's "Ulysses" or Eliot's own "The Waste Land" either becomes comfortable with the paradox of not understanding as itself a form of understanding or rejects the work as something as far as possible from "Art" as it can possibly be. This is a form of experiencing art that places the experience at the forefront. Art is not meant to mean anything; rather, it is meant to be experienced, or, rather, the experience of it is its meaning. The text is what is important, and discussing the history behind it or the context of its creation is useless, weighing the reader down. Let the poet empty himself entirely of self, Eliot urges in his essay, and let the poetry be poetry.

Eliot was an imperfect man, but one flaw that he definitely lacked was stupidity. How could a man famous the world over seriously request that no biography be written of him; how could he stand so firmly and purely for an artistic posture as to propose that it be translated into a code of conduct? The answer, I suspect, is a beautiful one, and one just as complex as his best poetry.

When Eliot converted from (agnostic) Unitarianism in 1927 to the Church of England and set himself on the path of spending the rest of his life as a committed Anglo-Catholic, he completely scandalized his literary circle. Not only did such people as Virginia Woolf consider it offensive for someone to go in for organized religion, it seemed totally incomprehensible that someone like Eliot, who so eloquently demonstrated the beauty of artistic iconoclasm, would go in for what seemed to be the very essence of an aesthetically useless, dying, old world order. Eliot, however, never considered his conversion to be a break; rather, he simply thought of it as development. "Ash-Wednesday" is certainly not written in the same style as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". That they have themes in common is undeniable.

The Unitarianism that Eliot inherited from his family was not at all concerned with the Incarnation of Christ; Anglo-Catholicism, however, was obsessed with it. There is no personality behind divinity in the former; in the latter, it is essential that the creator be accessible through the creation. The distance between the work and the author is emphasized in the former, while the proximity is stressed in the latter. There is nobody behind the poem in the theory articulated in "Tradition and the Individual Talent". In Anglo-Catholic theology, the world revolves around the presence of the Body behind the work.

Orthodox Christianity rejoices in paradox; thus, Christ's self-emptying (kenosis) in becoming Man is a complete unclothing from the state of divine exaltation, even as the state of divinity is simultaneously retained. If the author of a work is a god and the work is his creation, then the theory of poetry Eliot encourages us to hold is analogous to agnosticism or atheism. Yet Eliot believed in a type of Christianity as far from agnosticism as possible, refusing to ignore the presence of God and the saints. Eliot's play "Murder in the Cathedral" portrays martyred archbishop Thomas Becket as a man who empties himself of self, yet he is a man whose name is after death immortalized by those who venerate him, while the physical remains of his earthly existence become objects of devotion. Eliot preached anonymity, yet the world is hardly going to forget him any time soon. Eliot might have outwardly wished that his name be forgotten and his poetry remembered, but he may have inwardly wished that he be both forgotten and remembered at one and the same time, that his name remain forever caught up in the glorious paradox that is itself really the essence of poetry. We can, I venture, make good use of our opportunity to pry into Eliot's life, even while recognizing that he would have protested, even while recognizing that such prying is fully connected to a side of his art that is totally indispensable.

We can, in a word, be totally atheistic believers in his art, recognizing that only in such a way can we recognize the greatness of poetry capacious enough to go beyond itself even while remaining itself and nothing else.

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A Letter To My Dancers

Everything your dance teacher wants you to know.
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When anyone (especially a child) chooses to invest their time, talent, and passion into dancing, it's nothing to take lightly. These kids spend more time with me at the studio than they do at home with their parents. Before long, they're my "kids," too. When I only have an hour to lead a warm-up, teach choreography, and rehearse a number, there isn't much time to express the thoughts and feelings I'd necessarily like to. Being a dance teacher is the most spectacular and rewarding job - and I want my students to know that. Between the great rehearsals and the frustrating ones, the competitions and recitals, and the endless hours we spend together each week, there are just a few reminders I need to share with them.

Dear Dancers,

Please love yourself and love what you do with every ounce of your being. Do it with so much passion that your heart wants to burst. Dance is the most special thing; it's something we are privileged and lucky to have, so don't take it for granted.

Please believe in yourself. You are worthy. You are talented. You are strong and capable of everything you set your mind to. Strive to be the best version of yourself every day, not the reflection of the girl next to you. Dance like you. Move like you. Experiment and find what makes you, you. Be an individual. Trust me when I say I don't want 20 carbon-copied robots. I want you.

Trust that I have your best interest in mind. Sometimes my choices and decisions won't make sense, you might be confused, hurt or frustrated, but keep the faith that I'm on your side. I don't want to see you fail, and I'll do everything in my power to help you find the success you're looking for.

I want you to succeed, but for me to do that, you need to tell me what you need. Do you need the counts again? Do you need me to review the transition to floor one more time? If you understand, tell me. If you don't, tell me that, too. Be vocal, be present, be smart, and be prepared. Practice on the sides. Pay attention to the small details. Ask questions. Don't be late, and definitely don't forget your choreography. Take responsibility for your responsibilities and lead by example. Do you have any remote idea how many children look up to you? Who want to be just like you someday? Dance just like you? Kids watch, listen, and copy. Make sure the behaviors you're teaching them are behaviors you're proud of.

Make memories with your dance family while you still can. Cherish every 9 a.m. Saturday morning rehearsal, every competition you attend, every fundraising event, and every team sleepover. It'll be gone so fast. You're going to miss these days. Please, enjoy them.

Don't compare yourself to other dancers. You are you, and nobody can do "you" better than yourself. Don't wish away your abilities by secretly wishing you had Suzie's feet, Betsy's port de bras, or Charlie's center. The only thing you need to worry about is being a better version of yourself than you were the day before. You are your only competition, so don't be too hard on yourself. Be kind to your mind and body. You work day in and day out to perfect your craft and artistry. You work to mold and create yourself. You'll be rewarded with time if you keep fighting and don't give up. Usually when you want to throw in the towel, it's after you don't get the part you wanted or you don't make the team you hoped to. What you need to understand is the answer isn't "No," the answer is "Not yet." You know you're trying and working hard, and those efforts don't go unnoticed -- even if it seems they are.

Please, remember that it's not going to always be fair. You're going to be let down, and you're going to feel disappointed from time to time. You're not always going to win the trophy. You're not always going to get the featured solo part, and not everyone can be the front row and center dancer. This doesn't mean you're "bad" and this doesn't mean you're not "meant" to dance either.

Quite frankly, it's just how it works, you guys. It doesn't mean I don't like you, and it doesn't mean the dancer who does have the solo is my favorite. The dancer just might be more talented. Yeah, I said it. They might have better lines, straighter knees, or stronger stage presence, and that is entirely okay. You're going to run into this for the rest of your adult life. Someone is going to be smarter, more qualified, more desirable for a particular job or position. So instead of despising and resenting these dancers (and especially me), try to learn from them instead. You'll learn more from each other than you could imagine. But if you take away one thing from this, know that you are still worthy of my best training, my best analogies, my best choreography -- whether you are featured, in the third row, or even off-stage for the turn section.

As your teacher, it's my job to teach. Learning (and learning correctly) requires close attention to detail, incredible focus, and a plethora of corrections on my part. Yes, I will go out of my way to critique you, and I will continually tell you what needs fixing until it's fixed. I might have to tell you over and over and over again. And you know, I might even get frustrated with you once in awhile because of it, but here's what you need to understand: This doesn't make me mean or a bad teacher. This doesn't mean I hate you. What it does mean is that I see potential in you and I want to help. I just have to ask, do you see what I see in you? Do you see the talent and abilities I see?

Corrections are good. Success is an incredibly long and never ending process that takes time, but the corrections I give you are helping you get one step closer. So next time you catch yourself getting upset about receiving the same critique week after week or you want to complain about how mean I am, please remember that my intent is not malicious. I'm doing my job.

It's also my job to instill perseverance, dedication, discipline, trust, humility, confidence, creativity, bravery, and strong work ethic into you. I want to push your limits. Test you. Challenge you. I want to mold you into the person you want to be. Even though you probably don't even know who that person is, I do.

There are so many possibilities, opportunities, and challenges that are out there once you enter the world of adulthood. The dance world is so much bigger than your studio, competition routines, and conventions. At the end of the day, no one remembers or cares (especially your future employers) if you won a quadruple diamond platinum plus on your lyrical solo in 2016. They don't care about your first place overall at Showbiz. They don't care if you're Teen Miss Winner of the World. They don't care. What people do care about is your character, your heart, and how you made them feel.

Dancers, I will always support you. Whether you want to pursue a professional dance career in Los Angeles or New York City, in a company overseas, on your college dance team, I will support you. Whether you want to teach dance or choreograph locally in town, I will support you. Whether you don't want to dance at all and maybe be an engineer or a cosmetologist, I will support you. I will always fuel your dreams, goals, and desires, no matter where they'll take you.

I love you and I'm proud of you.

Sincerely,

Your Dance Teacher


Cover Image Credit: Pixabay

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