T.S. Eliot’s advice

February 18, 2018

In 1935 a woman sent the poems of a fifteen-year-old to T.S. Eliot for comment. He replied that they seemed ‘what one would expect from a precocious child of fifteen’. As to the young poet’s future, he replied:

Anything is possible. The poems have no serious intrinsic merit, but are able enough to make the girl’s future development seem interesting. I am glad that there are still young people who at that age are writing in regular metres. I think that she should be encouraged to practice in difficult set forms such as the sonnet and the sestina, to read good poetry, but very little contemporary poetry, and to keep away from competitions and prizes.

This is sensible. I think that in future,  whenever anyone applies to Snakeskin for advice (and people sometimes do), I shall refer them to these sentences of Eliot’s.

5 Responses to “T.S. Eliot’s advice”

  1. Nell Nelson Says:

    Agreed. Except for the SESTINA!!! I am glad her said ‘very little’ (but not NO) ‘contemporary poetry’.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Nowadays, students (American ones, anyway) read little poetry of any sort except on a Hallmark greeting card. Many teachers themselves do not read – or know how to teach – meter and rhyme. Of course, even such a form as a sestina can be “contemporized” though not always effectively (see “All-American Sestina” by Florence Cassen Mayers, who notably writes children’s books).

    • Liza Williams Says:

      A razor-sharp comment, with which I wholly agree. They, and their teachers, are innocent of poetry. They have never heard of the Harlem Renaissance – nor, in some cases, of the actual Renaissance. For teacher-poets, this is a tragedy, but also an opportunity – almost a crusade, undertaken with a holy vow!
      P.S. Sestinas, with their obsessive requirements, can be intriguing: like a kaleidoscope, the handful of colored shards recombining endlessly in new patterns…Though Mayers’, I agree, is random, to use my students’ favorite expression…

  3. Agree with Eliot, George, and especially Nell! Of course “contemporary poetry” around 1935 included some fine work by Eliot… the first of the Four Quartets being published in 1936.

  4. (Hey, TS: I dislike the sestina because its 6-words-7-times-each encourages verbosity in trying to fill out the requisite 39 lines. I’ve never seen a sestina that didn’t look like it would be improved by being shrunk to a sonnet. Not enough meat for the length, not enough compression of the limited ideas, because of the repetition. I notice you never wrote a sestina yourself. Great piece in the Dry Salvages btw, but far richer than a sestina.)

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