Poetry Friday: T.S.Eliot “Genuine Poetry Communicates”

September 26 marks the poet T.S. Eliot’s birthday. One of my favorite quotes by Eliot is not from a poem, but rather from his explanation that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

When I taught in the classroom, I would use this quote to explain why the same poem could be shared and enjoyed by different levels of readers. I would use this quote to spark discussion when students were convinced that there was a “correct” answer in making a response to a poem. That meant, I would use his quote when I would teach his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I would use a recording of Eliot reading the poem; they would follow along on the page. Eight and half minutes later, they would look up, perplexed.

“What does this poem mean? “they would ask.
“What did you understand? “I would counter. There would be a long pause, and I would say, “Don’t worry, poetry communicates before it is understood.”

The one section of this great modern poem that my students did feel comfortable understanding was the third stanza that describes the setting for J. Alfred Prufrock’s evening walk:

“The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.”

That stanza is a wonderful description of the soft October nights to come. My students enjoyed the figurative language in these lines as opposed to trying to decipher the literary allusions to Michelangelo, Hamlet, scuttling crabs and mermaids.  “Why would anyone dare to eat a peach?” they would wonder.

“But, did you like the poem?” I would finally ask.
“Maybe,” they would respond, “but we don’t understand it all.”
“That’s okay, you don’t need to. He is communicating to you. 

Here, you can listen to Eliot read this poem. Yes, it’s a little lengthy (8:32 min), but be patient… he’s communicating before being understood.

Happy Birthday, T.S. Eliot!Head over to Laura Salas’s blog “Writing the World for Kids” where she is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday.


9 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: T.S.Eliot “Genuine Poetry Communicates”

  1. Appreciations. My boyfriend who became my dear hubby recited parts of Eliot’s The Lovesong of … when we were first dating! I listened to the entire reading just now at lunch. It’s a gift to me that you didn’t know you were posting.

  2. I love to read things like this because I really like to understand poems. I have to work on letting them communicate with me even when I don’t understand them–just letting their sound and mood enchant me without worrying about literal meaning…

    • The other great idea about poetry and communication is in that Pope quote: “The sound must seem an echo to the sense”…kinda like what you said!
      Thank you for hosting (and taking time to respond).

  3. This is my favorite part (amidst all the parts that communicate, but that I still don’t understand!!!):

    Do I dare 45
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, known them all:
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, 50
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s