restricted access The Tendency of Some Modern Poetry
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840 ] The Tendency of Some Modern Poetry1 In discussing the aspects of present day poetry, Mr. Eliot declared that the modern poet seemed to serve no essential or necessary function: “Unless the poet’s work is of the worst or of the best type it receives no consideration ,” he asserted. “If it is of the worst type it goes into the newspapers. The best poetry is appreciated only by the cultural minority” (MD). He named few poets and no modern poems, and made no effort to give a “comprehensive view” of the field of modern verse. The modern poets in which he is interested are W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, he said, pleading at the beginning both ignorance and prejudice regarding the subject (Sun 1). He examined the accusation of obscurity against modern poetry and gave advice to the reader who encounters obscure verse (Sun 1). Mr. Eliot did not undertake to deny the charges [of obscurity] that have been made against his own work and that of his contemporary versifiers in the first rank. On the contrary, he admitted the charges and attempted to justify the product in despite of them by explaining that readers were simply unaccustomed to the stuff modern poets turn out. (Sun 2). Obscurity in verse was caused by one of three things, he said – the inability of the poet, the difficulty of the subject matter making obscurity almost inevitable, and a particular type of poetry to which the poet or the reader is unaccustomed. In the modern verse which he has read he said that “obscurity is largely due, deliberately or not, to the suppression of one or moreelementsinordertoemphasizethemoreessentialpoeticalelements.”2 For the reader, it is largely a matter of getting used to it: “Suppose you went into a drawing room where the people were all without their skins,” he suggested . “At first it would be hard to get used to seeing people like that. . . . It would be so entirely new, seeing anyone without human skin. . . . Then conceive that you found them more comfortable without their skins. You could then adjust yourself to the sight. . . . Afterward you would find them, possibly, more interesting. Their eyes would be more expressive. The play of their muscles would be fascinating. . . .” Apparent obscurity in poetry is often like that, he declared. It was a case of getting used to a feeling which had not been experienced (ellipses in Sun 1). Similarly, he suggested that readers would in time come to enjoy the sort of poetry that is now being [ 841 The Tendency of Some Modern Poetry produced. Better a poetry of muscular tissue, he said, than a poetry that is only skin deep. . . . [A] great deal of the poetry he sought to condemn lies at what he called the ‘cuticle level.’ It is a matter of form and nothing more” (Sun 2). But if a reader does not like a certain piece of poetry, there is no use in bothering with it. “If you get nothing at all out of the first reading, then drop it at once,” he advised, “because you can be reasonably certain you never will.” But the reader’s reaction is what is important, not what the author meant, or what another person thinks he meant. Different readers may get different interpretations, yet have a reaction as vital as the poet’s. “Poetry to be valuable to a reader must reach down into the levels which are highly private to the poet and are peculiarly his own . . . to feelings all sensitive people have in common,” he said (Sun 1).3 Poetry in the future may take two new forms, he said, one in which satire will be seriously developed, the other a newer form of poetical drama (MD). He prophesied a union of the verse and dramatic forms. He considered true dramatic verse the chief lack at present, and felt that young poets now were feeling that they wanted poetry to have “greater social activity,” as such dramas in verse form would afford. The poetry of the future would be satirical, he said, “but not the satire of merriment” (Sun 1). In regard to versification, Mr. Eliot says: “The tendency today is away from freedom, towards a newer form or a revival of older forms.” Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and Gerard Hopkins, the “three best modern English poets,” have especially influenced versification in recent years. “What more influences people is versification rather than matter.” It was as long ago as 1917 that T...