Taking the Personality Out of Poetry? I Didn’t Think It Possible

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From T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent":

“…the poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.  Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality” (Eliot, Part II, Paragraph 15).

Well, I guess I have discovered why writing poetry has never been one of my strong points.  Apparently, one’s past experiences and emotions should not be present in poetry to make it truly great.  In some ways, this makes sense to me.  Writers create stories and write poems full of events they may never have personally experienced quite frequently.  However, I have an extremely hard time believing it is possible for someone to write anything and not have some small portion of their personality seep into his or her work.  Every word choice, every plot twist, every literary device manipulated is to some degree a reflection of the person that wrote it.  I think most people have tendencies to use certain words and have writing styles unique to them.  No two people can write the exact same thing.  And don’t our past experiences and impressions affect how and what we write?  I honestly cannot understand how an author’s experience, impressions, and personality could not be infused with his or her work.  I just can’t grasp how it is humanly possible to distance oneself so much from one’s own emotions that a person would be able to create new feelings and emotions in a work that that person has never felt.    

See what others have to say about Eliot's article. 

2 Comments

Katie Vann said:

Gretta, I liked your comment in the beginnign about how after reading Eliot's opinion about poetry, you realized why poetry was never one of your stronger areas. Other than it was funny, I thought it was a good point as well because you were using your own experience to try to relate to what he was saying. I think everything we are reading has started to all turn into a huge circle for me: according to Eliot you wouldn't be a good poet because you used your emotions in your poetry; however who can really judge anyone's poetry and declare it "good" without having opinion play a big role in their decision?

Ellen Einsporn said:

Great observation, Greta. I mentioned a similar concept in the paper I wrote; however, I interpreted Eliot's words a little differently. I particularly focused on Eliot's statement that "emotions which he [the poet] has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him." For me, Eliot seems to be empowering the poet by telling us that yes, the things that he is "familiar" with can help him in his writing, but he is not firmly glued to expressing only the familiar in his writing. He has the ability to extend beyond his own personal experience and write about that as well. I agree with your point that "our past experiences and impressions affect how and what we write"; however, I think this is part of the struggle of being a writer. Sure, some of your personal biases will always seep through the cracks, but I think part of what separates a good writer from a great writer is that writer's ability to step into other people's shoes, to push himself beyond what he only knows in order to capture something more in his work.

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