Dislocating Language Into Meaning

“We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”

From the essay “The Metaphysical Poets” included in Selected Essays by T. S. Eliot. Eliot argued that plain, direct language (exotericism) was not effective in communicating deeply with the modern reader. Rather, the poet should develop new forms and devices for the expression of feelings and ideas. To that end, Eliot advocates for esotericism, that is to say, using language rich in symbolism and hidden meanings. Eliot scholar, Amar Nath Dwivedi, elaborates: “Eliot was fully convinced of ‘the uselessness of the wide appeal to an audience incapable of full appreciation.’ He was also fully convinced of the demands of our complex civilization. As art is a reflection of the spirit of the age, it also requires the resurrection of the lost and the development of the new artistic devices. Esotericism… is at once ‘a discipline for the easier desires of the artist and of the audience’ and ‘a necessary result of the conditions in which the poet’s sensibility has to operate.’ The ‘esoteric’ poet aims at ‘cultivating all the possibilities of words as a medium,’ and when the speech of one sense is insufficient to convert the burden of meaning, he uses the language of another.”

Eliot, of course, followed his own advice. His poems are rich in symbolism and hidden meanings; perfect examples include his two most famous poems: The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is considered a masterpiece of modern poetry. The Waste Land is a long poem, divided into five sections, that challenges readers due to its disjointed structure and dozens of symbols and allusions to the great works of the Western canon and Eastern philosophies. It is not hyperbole to state that you could spend an entire semester in college, studying that one poem.

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Read related posts: Why We Read Poetry
The Poem I Turn To
Great Literature Speaks

William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
What is Your Legacy?

For further reading: Selected Essay by T.S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot: A Critical Study by Amar Nath Dwivedi


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