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T. S. Eliot: Poetry as the Voice of the Unnameable


One of the 20th century’s greatest poets spoke of poetry’s power and importance to modernity, a valuable legacy for the times we’re living.

In his book The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), T. S. Eliot postulated:

Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.

From this position, the poet presents an arduous critique of a modernity that privileged the knowledge of feelings. It’s a tradition that continues with us even through the present day.

T.S. Eliot’s complex figure seems to elude easy definition. Few literary figures of the 20th century are so emblematic, so “classic,” to have arisen from those over-abundant days. The pertinent question might be as to how such a conservative author (a veritable traditionalist) could succeed in placing himself at the forefront of the most modern of poetry and to pose with such pristine clarity his indispensable role in our own interior lives? Amidst this rupture, how did this genius of language then pose a counter-rupture (as innovative as that might seem) as a new tradition, as contradiction, paradox, irony, and farce?


Black and white photo of T.S. Eliot

In Eliot, as in contemporary figures like Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and even later, E. E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan, distinct conditions which include the seemingly contradictory are met. They portray the paradoxes of the world that rose from the Great War and its monstrous descendent in the Second World War. “Otherness,” triumphed in proposing the marginal as the center of Western culture, or in other words, it restored human interiority (think of Whitman or Rimbaud as precursors). The horror of “modern times” presented irremediable beauty and fragile theatricality. Orientalism was intermittently and gradually assimilated. Colonial Europe ended, arrogant and blind to its subjugated “aborigines.” And a supposedly modern capitalism (a civilized barbarism) overdeveloped, miserable, before cultures like those of China and India, which exceeded it in refinement and historical efficiency.

Survival was in an era that Marx defined as “the icy waters of egotistical calculation.” (Paradoxically, The Egoist was a renowned periodical to which Eliot contributed and later edited.) The recovery (though not necessarily the recuperation) of conservative religious traditions, yet presented them as both avant-garde and innovative. Eliot’s choice of a nationality coincided with the fall of one transoceanic empire and his renunciation of citizenship in the emerging American empire. Humor and the absurd were reborn as powerful tools critical of insensitive power and ideology. The poet was restored to a position as a central actor in the world, reassigning the voice of the poet to a role within a tribe, and even more tragically, as a depository (and translator) of the sorrow of the species. The poet speaks what others fear to say, and names the un-nameable, of that over which others are silent, and which is finally the only possible cure for a chronically sick society.

It’s precisely from this modern disease —that which undermines human feeling— to which Eliot proposes his solution: accept the dichotomies of our age (beauty – horror, truth – lies, sacred – profane, knowledge – feeling) and then act. Embody the voice of humanity.

Modern poetry sought (and seeks still) to reframe three traditional elements that restore its most fundamental meaning. Serve others (even at the perhaps Promethean cost of personal sacrifice), bring humanity’s “feeling” to the surface despite a society that privileges other abilities, and restore sacred meaning to the world. And on a more discreet but no less profound level, poetry is capable of naming, and enables us to understand, the emotions we inhabit, those which are powerful, yet still very difficult to name.

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