The Paramountcy of Personality in Poetry

T.S. Eliot once said that poetry is “an escape from personality” and that it should be considered apart from the poet’s personal life.  However, what happens when poetry is NOT separated from the poet’s life, but instead it is considered very much a part of its significance and meaning?  Eliot is not wrong in his conviction, but he is not necessarily right either.  One problem in the exploration of this issue is that there is no right or wrong answer, but perhaps that makes it all the more interesting to discover.  The broad and sweeping question to examine is, is all poetry autobiographical and if so, why is this important?  Yes, all poetry is autobiographical in one way or another because the issue in the poem would not be written about if the poet did not have some direct or indirect connection to it.  It does not matter how large or small the connection is, without some extent of autobiographical focus, it may seem that the poet does not have much authority over the issue, and that is why this topic is an important one in the genre of poetry.  There are certainly counterarguments to dispute the argument that all poetry is autobiographical to some extent; there are schools of critical opinion that deny the relevance of it, as there are also problems that arise from poetry being directly related to poets’ personal lives.  What I’ve discovered about critics is that something that they may find to be meaningful, others may find to be pointless, and I think that is extremely important to keep in mind when studying a poet and his work.

The poet’s personal experience in their poetry makes it more accessible for readers.  Sometimes adding personal experience to a poem is the only way to tell a story, or express whatever it is the poet wants to convey.  It is difficult for poets to veer away from personal experience when writing poetry because usually real people and real events inspire it.  Therefore, emotional reality and literal truth are sometimes difficult to keep out of a poem.  On the other hand, one problem that may present itself in the 21st century is a continuous focus on the individual life of the poet.  A perpetual focus on the way autobiography performs in poetry runs the risk of easily becoming too narrowed and limited.   Coleridge once said, “To please me, a poem must be either music or sense; if it is neither, I confess I cannot interest myself in it”.  This raises the question of whether a poem must possess some popular intrigue in order to be accepted by its readers.   Goethe’s term “unfathomable,” which he defines as ‘that which we cannot exhaust, that which we cannot come to the bottom of’ rather than that ‘which rebuts our understanding’.  This quality of the ‘unfathomable’ is what poetry must possess to be able to stand the test of time, and that which we cannot exhaust can be found or come to the bottom of can be found in the personal.

(image from www.vibeplace.com)

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