Carving Out a Niche: T.S. Eliot
It is just as important for a poet to create poetry as it is for this same poet to carve out a niche in the world of poetry set in place by those preceding him or her.
In Timothy Materer's essay "Eliot's Critical Program," Materer notes that "as an experimental writer who had at first found it difficult even to publish his verse much less earn critical or popular favor, Eliot was aware that 'traditional' ways of interpreting poetry only hindered his generation of writers" (4). In short, Eliot became a poetry pruner, cutting off and discarding the aging limbs of literature to make room for the new buds of modernist poetry. He realizes that without the branches of the poetry tree that came before him and blazed the way, the new buds would never have had the ability to grow. But for the new branches to grow, the old must succumb to the young. This essay was clearly and concisely written, and stimulating to read. Materer seems to have a great deal of perceptive insight into Eliot's mind. This insight and his obvious research into Eliot's varying work provided a sturdy and well thought out basis for Materer's opinion and this essay, yet Materer struck me as having made a fatal mistake when writing "Eliot's Critical Program." While this essay is stimulating and informative, it offers very little of Materer's personal opinion. Materer has not created sulphurous acid. His ideas have not molded with Eliot's to create a new and different substance. Materer focuses most of his considerable energy on conveying solid information on Eliot and very little on original opinion of his own. I would like to note at this point that this DOES NOT MEAN that Materer conveys no original thought in his essay. I am simply saying that, while inspiring, Materer does less inspiring and instead allows Eliot's own words, through the essay, continue to inspire the reader. By Eliot's definition within "Tradition and the Individual Talent," this essay would not be defined as "art."
Eliot's realization that poets must take inspiration from the predecessors and 'make it new' is what caused him to write his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Criticism is the most effective way Eliot feels he can create a literary cannon, which would readily includes his own work, and he is correct. To judge poets by only the criterion constructed by the 'greats' like Milton and Shakespeare would be to exclude all those more contemporary poets work which would make an artist like Shakespeare roll his eyes and sigh loudly with exasperation.
It seems that this is why Eliot feels so comfortable criticizing Shakespeare's work in "Hamlet and His Problems." While some less accomplished writers may shy away from criticizing (arguably) the greatest writer of all time, Eliot dives right in. His points are interesting! Essentially, he argues that Shakespeare's character Hamlet had less impact because Shakespeare himself did not personally grasp the depth of the feelings that Hamlet the character had. Eliot does not go so far as to call Shakespeare's writing inadequate, but he obviously believes there is something lacking in the description of Hamlet's mind. For a play, no action or speech could encompass the depth of Hamlet's turbulent emotions. By leveling this critique at Shakespeare, who some consider to be the father of literature, Eliot is not only passing on a new and original idea. He is also carving out a place for himself at the already crowded literary table. By offering up a less-than-perfect element of Shakespeare's work, Eliot reminds the reader that it all has not been done! There is still more to discover! Shakespeare didn't write every story every written, and he (Eliot) has something new to say!
Ezra Pound does the same thing in his essay "A Retrospect." Pound finds himself searching for a place where his poetry fits in (and even takes center stage, knowing Pound). Finding all the seats at the table taken by the 'greats,' Pound, H.D., and Aldington build a new table by publishing their three principles. Take for example, principle #2, "to use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation" (58). This is only a semi-original idea, but still creates sulphurous acid. It is enough of a deviation from previous poetic mandates that it constitutes an original idea, melded with the old, to 'make it new.' Pound was known for his ability to 'make it new,' and was greatly responsible for erecting the modernist table at which Eliot seated himself.