TS Eliot, the poet and the professor

Af623e70-354c-4ae2-9cf8-a586933b0f21John Sutherland at the Financial Times:

There is a telling exchange with Edmund Wilson, who had offered a sympathetic and intelligent review of The Waste Land. Wilson, Eliot politely protested in a letter, had “over-understood” his poem. It’s an interesting term. In one of his most cited utterances, Eliot declared that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”. Possibly the poem will never be understood, in the sense that a crossword puzzle is solved. But the poem does not, for that reason, fail in its poetic purpose. If, that is, it is “genuine”. There is a strong whiff of incense-wafting here — Cardinal Newman’s “grammar of assent” is evoked. As with Christianity, great poetry requires an act of faith: something beyond mere “understanding”. One should never forget that Eliot is the greatest of his century’s religious poets.

Eliot would jest, on coming across some particularly owlish exegesis, that the critic had got more from the poem than he, Eliot, did. Of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) he recalled, wearily, “I have . . . seen some quite astonishing over-interpretation of this poem”. Should we approach his poems in something of the spirit of children going to a performance of the musical he inspired, Cats — not to understand but to experience and enjoy? That is too simple, of course, but on the right lines.

It would be easy to argue that Christopher Ricks and his assisting co-editor Jim McCue have, with this massive annotation, over-ballasted the ship.

more here.