Writing Poetry after Youth

Any poet, if he is to survive as a writer beyond his twenty-fifth year, must alter; he must seek new literary influences; he will have different emotions to express. This is disconcerting to that public which likes a poet to spin his whole work out of the feelings of his youth;–T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry

T. S. Eliot wrote this insightful comment when he was 29.  He had written The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but had not yet written The Waste Land.  It is a remarkable comment, since Eliot, himself, hadn’t “altered.”  His own style was still developing and his arguably best work was yet to come.  From my own personal experience, I think that there is something in this observation of Eliot’s.

Some time in my early 30’s my passion for poetry had dried up.  Those strong feelings of youth were being replaced by different motivations.  As Eliot writes, after 25, the poet “will have different emotions to express.”  It is fair to say that in early adulthood/late youth, emotions ruled my life.  But as I aged, deliberation and understanding the large question of how the world works and the still larger question of how the map of living unfolds became increasingly important.  So the verbal filigree of young passion yielded to more contemplative works. 

However, just beginning to tackle different life issues, expression proved a fresh start on language.  So my output was inferior during this period.  I remember a friend who liked my earlier poetry once exclaim to me, “You’ve lost it!”  And I had.  I had mostly lost youth.

But as time progressed, I became accustomed to the challenges that life throws at adults and my writing began to mature, too. I was aware of the loss of my muse in my early 30’s.  I knew that I wasn’t writing very well.  I knew that my friend was right, for then.  In fact, I had almost quit writing altogether; I did precipitously stop writing for long spells.  But I couldn’t stop writing. A new style developed for the new person I was since youth. Of the poems I’ve published, ¾ are “post-30’s” poems;–that is, poetry I wrote after the age of 30.  That which was lost was found! 

Eliot’s style underwent quite an alteration as he aged, as well.  As a literature major once told me, “The jury’s still out on Four Quartets” (1936-1942—when Eliot was aged 48-52).  But the jury returned a verdict on The Cocktail Party (premiered 1949); utter failure.  The difference in Eliot’s later work, compared with that of his earlier work, though, is not only a matter of Eliot’s age.  He had also undergone a religious conversion and meant to express it in his work.  This is a major “alteration!” And even if Eliot’s artistry matched his new spirituality, the critical reception would have been skewed by the counter-religious zeitgeist of the modern age. 

Writing poetry is a dance between grasping language, grasping life, and grasping art.  All this is likely to undergo revision and rewrites with the stages of living one will experience here, and perhaps, hereafter.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. João-Maria
    Jan 05, 2021 @ 04:44:39

    The jury is not out for me apropos Four Quartets. They are his best work, if not merely because they actualised Eliot precisely as an author who evolved beyond the humiliation of authorship. The subtle humility of the Quartets can only inconceivably be reproduced. Similarly could be said of Marina or Ash Wednesday or any other of Eliot’s neglected oeuvre in favour of Wasteland or Hollow Men, which are both the prideful bastions of Modernism, their most deserved position. We must then divide reach and meaning as one would influence and power; Eliot could not have exceeded Wasteland at the eyes of Modernism, because Modernism could not exceed Wasteland. That does not mean Eliot could not exceed them both. The why’s and how’s are perhaps open to more personalisation of literature than I’d care to permit — being an academic in the matter — but it’s often difficult for us to see these authors beyond the massive scope of their influence and their influential canon. We could not look at Aiken or Rilke or even Byron, all of these brilliant poets that did not alter paradigms, through a similar lens; our sight of them is fairer, in a way, and cleaner in many others.

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  2. davidfekete123
    Jan 05, 2021 @ 12:20:56

    Joao, thank you for your insights on 4 Quartets, Modernism, pride, humility, and canon. I put a lot of thought into my posts. Then I read your replies and put in a lot of thought again.
    Your characterization of 4 Quartets as self transcendence for Eliot, and transcendence of the hubris of Modernism culturally gives me much to ponder re 4 Quartets and the evolving politics of canon. Pride and humility are terms I use in ministry all the time but never thought to apply to cultural criticism. I especially like your observation that Modernism can’t get past Waste Land because that would entail transcending itself.
    I went to school on the heels of modernism, so I’m keenly interested in post modern voices as yours is.
    And by the way, I’d like you to know that I weigh your responses to my posts heavily because I know you to be an informed reader, academic, and brilliant poet.
    Best,
    Dave

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