T. S. Eliot’s Theory of Poetry (Part 6)

This fitting together of the pieces of experience is, of course, only one of innumerable possible means by which to explain experience as a whole. This is why “there is no competition,” as Eliot wrote in East Coker, among poets. There is no poet who can ultimately outdo the others in such a way as to remove their ability to write new poetry. Although they work with the same set of experiences, the variety of means by which these experiences can be explored, discussed, and unified with other experiences is the inexhaustible source of all poetry. In the same essay, Eliot continues, “The essential is to get upon the stage this precise statement of life which is at the same time a point of view, a world; a world which the author’s mind has subjected to a process of sophistication.” More recently, Arthur Danto has articulated a similar notion, writing in his 1981 book The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, that “it may just be one of the main offices of art less to represent the world than to represent it in such a way as to cause us to view it with a certain attitude and with a special vision.” Each poet, then, lends to his readers a certain lens through which to view the world of experience and through which to understand its phenomena collectively. In so doing, he grants the reader a vision of the world which may be ultimately incorrect and which the reader may ultimately reject or abandon, but which yet provides some special insight.

Eliot concludes his 1950 Harvard lectures on Poetry and Drama with a statement that grants a great deal of insight into his thought on poetry:

It is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.

Poetry, like all art, then, provides for the reader a “credible order” by which the many and various phenomena of life can be made sense of, the disparate united into a cohesive whole. In so doing, poetry is able to grant the reader the ability to perceive that reality, in spite of its often chaotic and random appearance, has some underlying unity by which it is bound together. This insight, in turn, provides the terms by which one may make peace with the world. In this case, “world’ includes both the world internal to and external to the reader, including even in the internal worlds of others. The reader is able to establish a peace within and with himself through a greater understanding of the internal worlds of another, namely, the poet, who stands, by extension, for the internal worlds of innumerable others. The isolation of subjective existence does not weigh so heavily upon one who is able to peer, however haltingly, into the internal world of another and there to partake of a shared experience.


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