September 28, 2014

"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 a BBC piece, published Friday, with the insipid title: "Happy Birthday, T.S. Eliot: 20 of His Most Life-Affirming Quotes."

You know what's not "life-affirming"?

The word "life-affirming."


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Exactly. When I see a movie trailer, a DVD box, or a book jacket with the word "life-affirming," I reach for my vomit bag.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

And so would T. S. Eliot.

southcentralpa said...

Macavity's a Mystery Cat
He's called the Hidden Paw...

[Yes, and when I see "life-affirming" in promotional materials, all I can hear is TV's Frank going "It'a light-hearted romp ... a TRI-umph of the human experience!!"

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

"Triumph of the human spirit"! That's worst of all.

Related: old science fiction where the aliens are about to exterminate the human race but a last-minute miracle is pulled off by some proto-Kirkean, torpedo-damning, one-in-a-million-chance-taking hero, because the aliens "didn't count on the human factor."

rhhardin said...

They're after the life-affirming market.

It's always about ratings.

Women like it.

rhhardin said...

The triumph of the bacteria spirit is big.

southcentralpa said...

better proto-Kirkean, than proto-Kirkegaardean, I always say, but obviously responsible opinions will vary ...

kcom said...

That quote is an arrogant piece of crap. Sounds like Cate Blanchett pontificating about how actors are God's gift to humanity and the rest of us are just along for the ride.

Anonymous said...

Poetry is best approached with cruel neutrality.

Carol said...

so much of modern art is not life-affirming. that it is worthy of note when it occurs.

kcom said...

And exactly whose life does it affirm?

Hagar said...

Me and poetry is about like the Professor and smells.

Anonymous said...

The economics of Poetry is the Treacle-Down theory.

rhhardin said...

TED Talks affirm that there are people who know stuff worth knowing and that they can impart it to you in a lecture.

Unfortunately it's not people who give TED Talks.

Anonymous said...

Poetry? People are still doing that stuff?

Achilles said...

betamax3000 said...
"The economics of Poetry is the Treacle-Down theory."

That was good.

St. George said...

Eating Poetry


Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

Michael K said...

Who knew that Elliot knew Obama ?

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass -

And that he understood ?

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Godfather said...

I, too, dislike the phrase "life affirming", but to give the man his due, most of these quotations aren't.

Ann Althouse said...

""Triumph of the human spirit"! That's worst of all."

"Triumph of the Will"… that was bad too, bad in an instructive way that that ought to dampen one's enthusiasm for triumphant, spiritual affirmation.

By the way, did you know that "enthusiasm" was originally pejorative?

Anonymous said...

“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”

“Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.”

“O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked."

There's nothing new under the sun.

southcentralpa said...

"'enthusiasm' was originally pejorative"

Yes, and aw(e)ful wasn't ...

Would you like to unpack "bootless inquisition" for us using your (linkless) OED ... ?

[doubtless the OED can tell you what it's from]

William said...

The words life affirming do not immediately spring to mind when thinking of T.S. Eliot. The Wasteland has probably inspired more suicides than Nirvana. I read the quotes. I don't want to go out and take on the world and make it a better place. There's a certain amount of wan wisdom in them, but life has not been affirmed.

John Lynch said...

And Eliot didn't kill himself!

chickelit said...

Hey, man, you don't talk to T.S. Eliot. You listen to him. The man's enlarged my mind. He's a poet in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he'll... uh... well, you'll say "hello" to him at the bank, right? And he'll just stare right through you. He won't even notice you. And suddenly his eyes will grab you, and his glance will throw you in a corner, and it'll say, "Do you know that 'if-affirming' is the middle word in 'life-affirming'?"

Well do you?

Anonymous said...

Leave it to whites: they're at the top of the supremacy, always the most likely to have things go their way (because that is how our society is rigged) and even with all that they still want things to be "life-affirming." Pathetic.

"Life-affirming" means "White-affirming"...

It is turtles all the way down...

chickelit said...

Yeah, I guess T.S. Eliot was white...therefore he needs to be shunned...

...but who exactly are you lily white laureate lauders suggesting instead? Maya Angelou?

Anonymous said...

The "Life-affirming" things whites don't even see:

"Plus nobody I know
got killed in South Central L.A.
Today was a good day"

- Ice Cube

It is turtles all the way down...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps these are mere epiphenomena, or perhaps one can believe in true causes, or believe there is a method available now for their immanent discovery.

Tell me what you know.

chickelit said...

@betamax3000: Did you know that "hit" is the middle word in "white"?

The MJS could walker a trek with that one.

Anonymous said...

The assumption that other people lack personality and emotions can be called any number of things: some of them printable, none of them "life-affirming".

Todd Grimson said...

There's an anti-literature bias that pops up on Althouse once every two months or so, and this reaction arises out of ignorance and old-fartism that detracts from the spirit of this blog (which I've followed since 2003). NPR and the BBC and A&E can all be relentlessly stupid while they try to fit everything into their agenda -- which is, almost all of the time, for literature to be "uplifting" and/or "activist" -- and that represents only the worst, most forgettable and easily forgotten stuff. Sure, this is the stuff that gets grants and politically correct awards -- but this has been going on forever. Edgar Allan Poe in his literary criticism of the 1840s eloquently expressed his hatred of the New England literary salons of the time, who used that very word -- "uplfting" -- as the goal of all imagination again and again.

There's no reason to here serve as exact opposite just Garrison Keillor and Maya Angelou are dreck.

There are plenty of good poets out there now. Matthew Zapruder, Matthew Rohrer, Tony Lawton (author of the book "What Narcissism Means to Me") -- it's even worth taking a look at Stkvia Plath's "Ariel" -- forget the fact that she's become a patron saint of feminist victimhood and that Gwyneth Paltrow played her in a film that's a very mixed bag at best. Check out Tao Lin if you'd like a book of poetry to give your 17 year old rebellious teen daughter or niece.

James Lasdun isn't bad. Megan Boyle.

Ann Althouse said...

The opposite of affirming should be asoftening.

People who want life affirmed want life asoftened.

chickelit said...

People who want life affirmed want life asoftened

Get thee to a refractory!

Chef Mojo said...

T. S. Elliot. I last saw him with Ezra Pound, fighting in the captain's tower. Me, a bunch of calypso singers and some fishermen laughed and threw flowers at them. Haven't seen him since.

tim in vermont said...

I used to think Garrison Keillor was dreck, until I saw somebody else try to do his show for a while. He is a story teller, he can make stories out of just about anything and make it look so easy people thought they could substitute somebody else who talked slow with a deep voice. He is a unique entertainer. Is he Phillip Roth? No, but maybe he would be Mark Twain if he didn't have radio for an outlet and had to write and lecture.

FWBuff said...

"I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker;
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid."


St. George said...

Sonnet 29: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes


When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

virgil xenophon said...

"Every time I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun."

---------Hermann Goering

ken in sc said...

The key to Garrison Keillor's success is his voice. His voice makes his stories sound so warm, sincere, and caring. However, if you read his books, re-telling the same stories, he comes across as sarcastic and contemptuous of the people he talks about in Lake Wobegon and Mist County. It's clear he thinks that they are beneath all the cool sophisticated people who perform on and listen to public radio.

Michael said...

Garrison Keillor seems to be on NPR 24/7. I click him off with lightening speed, probably faster than I hit the button for Obama. I loathe him.

traditionalguy said...

Elliot just needs to say what he means. He dwells between the thoughts of others.

JPS said...


"Garrison Keillor seems to be on NPR 24/7. I click him off with lightening speed,"

I was just trying to find an old quote - roughly, that some decades from now, Garrison Keillor's prairie purr will be considered as terrifying as a Vincent Price narration.

Not sure I agree, but it was odd enough to make me chuckle. I'm not a fan either.

Anonymous said...

Poetry is one of the ways whites can let their hearts soar despite the evils they have done to blacks. Whites, making distractions from their actions into Art...

It is turtles all the way down...

tim in vermont said...

Well, I don't listen to NPR, so maybe that is why my tolerance for him is higher.

Richard Dolan said...

We need a new word to replace 'poetry.' Despite its vaunted history, just the word has become such a turn -off, reeking of everything so many hated about school.

Marc Puckett said...

Mons Ronald Knox's Enthusiasm is a great read, the title being used in the word's historical not contemporary meaning.

richard mcenroe said...

"By the way, did you know that "enthusiasm" was originally pejorative?"

So was "sophisticated." It meant, "spoiled" or "corrupted".

St. George said...

"It's De-Lovely"

Cole Porter

....See the crowd in that church
See the proud parson plopped on his perch
Get the sweet beat of that organ sealing our doom
Here goes the groom – boom!

How they cheer and how they smile
As we go galloping down the aisle
It's divine, dear, it's d'vene, dear, it's d'wunderbar, it's d'victory
It's de-velop, it's d'vinner, it's d'voix, it's D'lovely

The night is tired and so we take
The few hours off to eat wedding cake
It's delightful, it's delicious, it's D'lovely

It feels so fine to be a bride
And how´s the groom while he's slightly fried
It's divineful, it's delicious, it's D'lovely

To the pop of champagne off we hop in our plush little plane
'Til a bright light through the darkness cosily calls Niagara Falls

Well, my love, our day's complete
What a beautiful bridal suite
It's D'reamy, it's d'rousy, it's d'reverie, it's d'rhapsodie
It's d'regal, it's d'royal, it's d'ritz, it's D'lovely

We settle down as man and wife
To solve the riddle called married life
It's delightful, it's delicious, it's D'lovely

Dale Light said...

I'm reminded that Prufrock was John Kerry's favorite poem.

tastid212 said...

Old T.S. from Saint Louis, became a believer, an upper-case Catholic. Is belief life-affirming? Is belief a rejection of the Pound?
Other writer-believers: C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Parker - belief is no whim, see?

Anonymous said...

Dorothy Parker was a believer? I don't think so. Might you be thinking of mystery writer Dorothy Sayers? She very definitely was a believer.

Anonymous said...

Dorothy Parker was a believer? I don't think so. Might you be thinking of mystery writer Dorothy Sayers? She very definitely was a believer.

tastid212 said...

you are correct. maybe i just wanted to believe it was parker.

Phil 3:14 said...

I read this blog from most recent post to earliest in the day.

After reading the Crack And ARM dominated threads I thought of:

"Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless"

Well, at least we got the meaningless part right.

Henry said...

I too dislike it

Sam L. said...

"A poet who reads his own verse in public may have other nasty habits." — Robert A. Heinlein

Re: Keillor. Some years back he developed a bad case of Republican Derangement Syndrome, which mutated into a truly severe case of Bush (BUSH !!!!!!!!!!!!!1111!!!) Derangement Syndrome.
Ken. I never noticed his books (read 20-30 years ago) were as described, but Bill Bryson surely does strike me that way.

SJ said...

Now, for "life-affirming" poetry, poetry that encourages the heart and focuses the mind on noble actions:

I would recommend Beowulf.

Will T.S. Eliot be read in a thousand years? I don't know.

But I suspect that the anonymous author of Beowulf will.

tim in vermont said...

I first came across Bill Bryson was when I was working in England and he struck me at the time as A) Almost completely ignorant of British history. B) Making a living insulting his own country for the pleasure of foreigners.

rcocean said...

"There's an anti-literature bias that pops up on Althouse once every two months or so, and this reaction arises out of ignorance and old-fartism that detracts from the spirit of this blog"

I agree somewhat, although I suspect you are just "Pro-literature" and just resent anyone attacking Literature -as it stands today.

There really is a lot of "Bad" literature out there. There's also a of literature that's good for a small elite, but doesn't have much general appeal. And finally, for a long time Literature - with a capital L - has stopped appealing to the average educated person. Y'know, sometimes the "Dark Ages" really are "Dark" and not just some old fart imagining it.

mccullough said...

Like Madonna, he was an American with an affected British accent. Willem Dafoe did a good job portraying him.

I prefer Wallace Stevens.

Fred Drinkwater said...

kcom writes: Sounds like Cate Blanchett pontificating about how actors are God's gift to humanity and the rest of us are just along for the ride.

This reminded me of a flurry of iPad or iPhone adverts on TV a few months ago, with a poetry-prof voice pontificating over a slide show of cool folk doing arty things with their latest Apple products. At one point he sonorously emits something like "science, medicine, engineering; these are all well enough, but ART is what really matters for life".
This remark brought to our ears by a vast technological structure, stretching over thousands of miles, hundreds of years, and millions of lives, in the service of marketing the latest fragment of that same structure.
Yet another example of the magical thinking and cultural structural blindness afflicting far too many.

St. George said...

A whop bop-a-lu a whop bam boom
Gadji beri bimba glandridi
Hidee hidee hidee hi
Fa la-la la-la, la-la la-la
Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom ba ba bom ba ba bom ba ba dang a dang dang ba ba ding a dong ding—blue moon

Life goes on, brah.

Bob Ellison said...

How does poetry differ from prose?

chickelit said...

Bob Ellison asked...
How does poetry differ from prose?

It's like the difference between claims and specification in the patent world.

Fred Drinkwater said...

chickelit: Damn. I wish I had had that sentence in mind during my last meeting with USPTO.

rcocean said...

Expected Crack remark:

"A waste land for whites, but hell on earth for blacks. April may be the cruelest month for whites, but for blacks its EVERY month. A cocktail party for Whites, but who's serving the drinks, Black Folks!"

Robert Cook said...

"How does poetry differ from prose?"

"If you have to ask, don't mess with it!"

The Godfather said...

It's funny, though, that people used to be able to make a living -- often a very good living -- writing poetry. Eliot and Robert Frost may have been the last; at least I can't think of one since then. Reading poetry is hard ("In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo." -- a contemporary reader's reaction would likely be WTF), and perhaps we just don't have the time or patience for it anymore.

MathMom said...

Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island was given to me by a friend from Wales. She was rolling on the floor laughing when reading it. I loved the parts that were funny, but the guy turns nasty in parts and kinda ruins it. So, I've read my last Bill Bryson book.

Garrison Keillor stopped being funny when he started hating Bush, as noted above. We used to listen to his News from Lake Wobegon tapes(!) and CDs on our long road trips. He is just mean and caustic and unlikeable now. Also a serious hypocrite, but what public-radio-supported Liberal crank isn't?

Todd Grimson said...

Paul Bowles once said to me, "I don't like being read to." I don't either, and hearing or witnessing a performance is an entirely different experience from reading and finding the rhythm of the words, their music and meaning, inside your own head.

I once saw Norman Mailer read from "Ancient Evenings" and for ten minutes or so I was spellbound. The actual novel is pretty much unreadable and little read by this point.

Likewise I saw Ann Beattie read from er novel "Love Always" and she was vastly enjoying herself, more or less laughing at her own jokes and so on. One had the feeling she had read scenes from the novel aloud to her friends and they had all told how marvelously witty the material, when -- to the extent that you can believe that Beattie's New Yorker-oriented ouevre is comprised of anything but very minor work -- "Love Always" is one of the more minor works she has written.

Contrariwise, the Beat poet Michael McClure put on a wonderful performance of his "beast poems", which were then and remain very hard to read to completion or without dismissive laughter.
The Poetry Slams -- do they still exist -- very quickly devolved into stand-up comedy routines or gangsta rap. Has rap ever managed any memorable actual poetry, beyond incantations mostly comprised of boasting and inexpressive obscenity? Not too often, if ever.

When an actor or the author reads aloud, they introduce the element of Time, and so your experience of the poetry or prose is no longer controlled by your own mind and its internal rhythms but by the performer, so the room for your imagination to expand or contract the written words and their effects within your mind is not in your control. Or perhaps it is in your control insofar as once a line or paragraph or group is past, it can be more easily disposed of, because it's over, the performer as moved on and you must continue to pay attention with a certain amount of mental exertion if you are to keep up. It's difficult to dwell on and go over any particular section or allow your own mind to create associations and nuance because you're at the mercy of the performer and the music of their voice.

To the extent you have any control maybe it's limited because that is what you want, a limited experience that will be soon over and gone.

People have different uses for books (or texts) they deign to read (or have read to them).

You also, as a reader, may be seeking to induce very different levels of response at different times of your life. "That's enough." The last words of Immanuel Kant before death.

Mikio said...

Like most people, I've never sought out poetry to read. I'll maybe read a poem if one shows up in front of my face. If it's short. Maybe.

Having established those credentials, I declare the following to be best poem ever. It's by non-poet Julia Galef and for all I know, it's the only poem she's ever written.

It's short, only fifteen lines, but there's a puzzle aspect to it, so a brief backstory is recommended to fully appreciate it on the first read.

St. George said...


"Ancient Evenings" is not just "pretty much unreadable," it is unreadable.


tim in vermont said...

I used to love poetry, majored in literature in fact. Most of what passes itself off as poetry now seems more like therapy for the writer or social positioning. Being able to write poetry nobody buys is a marker of high status if ever there was one.

But I have tried to go back and read poetry I really loved in the past, and have realized that its appreciation required a real depth of knowledge concerning the references, times it was written, other poetry that came before and after. All of that knowledge is gone due to disuse, and I just don't see it anymore.

The only poems I have read in the past few years are Beowulf, The Odyssey, and The Iliad.

Peter said...

T.S. Eliot's enduring contribution to culture is the phrase, "April is the cruelest month." Practically everyone knows it (even if many would be unable to say where it comes from).

T.S. Eliot is well worth reading; however, there's no denying that his reputation is far less today than it was fifty years ago. Why? Well modernism got old, most dead white males are now despised in the academy, and he's not nearly transgressive enough for contemporary sensibilities.

But so long as 'most everyone still remembers that "April is the cruelest month," all is not lost.

Richard said...

Ann Althouse said...
The opposite of affirming should be asoftening.
People who want life affirmed want life asoftened.
9/28/14, 1:50 PM

Is that true? Does life affirmation have to occur at the expense of death. Life without death is unthinkable and vice versa. Can not the apocalypse be life affirming? Maybe people who want life affirmed don't know what they are asking for.

Mitch H. said...

There were two T.S. Eliot - the young, merciless nihilist who wrote "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock", and the rueful High-Church craftsman of the Four Quartets, who wrote of his younger self:

And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others' harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools' approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.