Lack of Personality and Emotion-Is this really what writing is about?

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“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 these things.” -From T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” part II, paragraph 17). 


Wow, I knew his poetry was difficult and deep, but this is really heavy writing.  I am very intrigued by Eliot’s descriptions of emotion in poetry, especially by the above quote.  Before studying poetry in college, I had always believed that poetry was all about the author’s emotion.  All of the people who had written poetry who I had personally known had written it as a way to express their own emotions.  When we studied poetry in high school, and even in some courses in college, we had always discussed how the author’s personal life and emotions were significant to the piece.  At first I thought, "All of these experiences I had with writers and teachers must have occured with people who had no 'personality and emotions.'  Do I even have a true personality and real emotions?  Eliot, afterall, suggests that when personal emotion is added to poetry, the writing is not nearly as 'good' as when all personal emotion is abandoned." 


But, what really is “good” writing?  This is the question, after all, that Eliot (and most likely many of the other critical writers we will read this semester) is trying to answer, at least in terms of poetry.  Eliot suggests, in a nut shell, that good poetry should be new, yet traditional, learned, yet untrained, “sulfurous acid,” yet readable, and emotional, yet lacking emotion.  One more set of antonyms, and I would have given up. 


Then, however, Eliot comes to his conclusion.  In his final paragraph, Eliot writes:

“The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.  And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” 

Finally, we the readers see that all of the contradictory descriptions were given because all are necessary for “good” poetry writing, according to Eliot.  I do know people with emotions and personalities, afterall!


            In the end, I have to agree wholeheartedly with Eliot.  Often, I myself focus either too much on the learned, historical, passionately “sulfurous”, personally emotional aspects of these antonyms rather than the later half.  I also noticed that many times teachers had focused on a "correct" meaning of writing that encouraged taking a look at the writer and the time period.  Instead, I now see that focusing on both sides of the picture will hopefully help me to be a better writer in the future.  His discussion also helped to show exactly how complex a critic’s job in general is (I know we are going to learn about critics who look at only one side or from an entirely different viewpoint), and how I as a critic of literature (because everyone is to some extent) must look at a work’s many variables in many ways.  And, by realizing exactly how a critic thinks, and exactly what makes “good” writing, I can be a better writer and reader.


See what other's think of Eliot's essay.


Derek Tickle said:

I also believe that Eliot's article was very interesting and true. When I first began studying poetry at the college level, I thought that you only used emotion and personal experiences. It is true to think that when a poet or writer simply uses their knowledge without emotion then the poetry or writing will be more academic.

I also think, in agreement with you, that it is important to learn and use the history of poetry. It is important to understand how previous poets composed poetry and made it "literature" for generations.

High school teachers usually tell their students what the so-called right answer is about a particular poem or literature piece. This type of learning should not continue because then the students think that they will always be given the correct answer. As you and I know, there is not "correct" when it comes to poetry. The important part is what we take from the poetry, how we intrepret it, and how we teach other people.

Here is the link for my blog entry: The Perception of Emotion and Poetry

Katie Vann said:

Although I don't completely agree with Eliot, I did agree with the point you brought up about learning poetry in high school and even in some other college courses. Before reading this article, I completely believed that poetry was written from not only experience, but emotions adn feelings as well. However, after reading Eliot's claim, I can see how poetry can be written without personality and emotion. Now, I can't say that I would agree completely with either side, but I would definately have looked at poetry differently in some of my other classes had I read this article first.

Jenna said:

Erica, I picked this same quote. I was also initially surprised at Eliot’s recipe for poetry that called for writers to escape from their personalities and emotions. In high school, I remember discussing how the poetry made us feel and what we believed the author was trying to convey through the emotions presented in the work. I agree with Eliot that poets need to be escape emotionally and personally from the poem. I think what he meant was that poets need to block out their other emotions and just focus on the emotion he/she wants to write. Emotion has to play some part in the writing of poetry because the author would need to know how to describe a certain emotion.

Though I believe that emotion and personality most definitly plays a part in any type of writing, the ability to separate those from what you want to write is extremely important. The need to focus on the integrity of the writing becomes the most important part of writing and if we allow our emotions and personality complete sovereignty we compromise that integrity.

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