Tradition and the Individual Talent

It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing, but not with the complexity of the emotions of people who have very complex or unusual emotions in life. One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.–T.S. EliotTradition and the Individual Talent (

A student in one of my classes said that she had always been taught that poetry is an expression of emotion, and she’s having trouble assimilating some of T.S. Eliot’s claims.

One of my favorite TV shows is Babylon 5. While the creator openly calls himself an agnostic, one of the reasons I like the show is that most of the characters (humans and aliens) have religious motives. One show featured a young monk who dies under horrible circumstances, but who likens his own suffering to the suffering of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Later, the monk’s abbot forgives the murderer. The TV show’s lead character is shocked that the abbot would be so forgiving, and sort of ashamed that he can’t be that forgiving himself.

Fans of the show chatted on the internet… did this show mean that the show’s creator, an agnostic, had some sort of religious conversion? Was he starting to believe in the faith he had rejected?

The creator of the show, who also wrote the episode, answered the fans… as an experienced writer, he can create characters who have faith, and he can tell a good story that hinges on that faith, without necessarily believing in that faith. He had told equally powerful stories about aliens sacrificing themselves for their own religious beliefs, but he didn’t believe in the planets where those characters were supposed to come from.

Certainly, authors write from their own experience, and perhaps this guy had at one time known faith, or he was just a keen enough observer of people around him and stories that he has read that he was able to touch that segment of the audience that appreciated a moving religious story.

But I think it’s a popular myth that great authors have to express their inner emotions in order to create great art, or that the greater the emotion, the greater the art.

People with terrible voices can sing “Happy Birthday” to their children, and it will be a meaningful expression of love, even if it is full of technical errors (off-key, off-tempo, the lyrics are wrong, etc.) that would drive from the room anyone else who isn’t part of the family.

The same applies to poetry, or any other medium. For example, here’s a singing performance, that’s an expression of emotion yet is most certainly NOT good music.

Does her (decided lack) of singing ability have anything to do with her patriotism or her political competency? No. Would she ever make it as a lounge singer if she wasn’t already a political celebrity? No.