Yes, it’s TALENT. I know.

As in talent contest. On holiday in Llandudno over 50 years ago, my grandmother made my sister and me enter one. She herself had won a prize for consuming more marshmallows inside a minute than anybody else.

Our task, in the children’s section, was to sing. We were about to perform Brahms’ Lullaby, to which we knew the words. We queued up for our turn on the stage. I (aged five or six) was the older sister: Louise must have thought I knew what to do. But we forgot the words after the first couple of lines and in an agony of embarrassment our chance of fame dissolved.

And then talent turned up again in church, in that mystifying parable. Two faithful servants doubled their allocation of talents, so you got the general idea. The one who buried his in the ground got short shrift. His shrift was so short that the words stuck forever: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

No wonder John Milton in ‘On his blindness’ (available as a HappenStance BardCard) talked about his ability to write as “that one talent which is death to hide”.

And now there is Carol Ann Duffy. The word ‘talent’ pops up all over the place in her work, like a shining coin. She even has a whole poem called Talent.

But I was thinking about T S Eliot and his famous essay, which is now, O wondrous internet, available at the click of a mouse. I was thinking about it – I often do – when reflecting on how hard it is for poets to work out where they fit in. People like me tell them they are not original enough. Where and how does the individual talent fit in, and how do you double it?

So I re-read the essay, which seemed to me much harder work than I originally thought it. In fact, what I had preserved was an interest in the central idea, namely that there is a relationship between the individual writer and the writing tradition, and that this relationship may be a vexed one.

Eliot writes in a traditional essayist’s style and that’s another problem for me now, though it wasn’t when I first read him. In my teens, I thought all poets were men. Now, when I read about “the historical sense” that “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones”, the “man” and the masculine pronoun make me read uncomfortably, like someone in bed with crumbs.

The “historical sense” is, to Thomas Stearns, crucial. It is vital to one’s place in tradition, which cannot “be inherited”. Indeed “if you want it you must obtain it by great labour”. Already his language is semi-biblical. And off he goes:

. . . the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

Blimey. I’d say it’s impossible to write poetry, well or badly, without the pastness of the past getting through. Sometimes aspiring poets say, without compunction, that they don’t read poetry. They worry about being influenced.

It makes no odds. Poetry is in them. It creeps in from the playground. It’s in Sticks and stones can break my bones / but words will never hurt me. It’s in It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man’s snoring and A stitch in time saves nine and Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, as well as She sells sea-shells on the sea shore.

And more modern sources too: A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat and Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

The tradition is in the language, the language is in the tradition, the tradition is the history, we are pickled in it from birth. And it gets, willy nilly, nolens volens, into poetry. It’s jiggery pokery and hocus pocus. It’s the Catholic mass and the Cadbury’s fudge advert.

What the poet does with it is quite another matter. She has to find her place in the whirling world of words and still say something or other. Eliot insisted “that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.” I guess that’s the same as saying poets should read.

But then we get to an even harder demand: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” This appeals to me. I absorbed Calvinism with the parable of the talents. But wait – continual extinction? From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. Damn.

It may be argued (with some justification) that I am deliberately muddling Eliot’s noble thesis. Keats’ “negative capability” and Eliot’s extinction of the personality are not a million miles apart. But Eliot goes on to compare the poet to a shred of platinum. I had forgotten this, and I do see why. As memorable metaphors go, it doesn’t rate highly. But then there’s the celebrated bit: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”. This dictum seems to apply remarkably well to Eliot’s own work (invariably true of poets’ definitions of poetry). And it sounds rather good.

Except that he ruins his entire effect by adding petulantly: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

So yes, the essay is interesting, but not as interesting as I thought, or as useful. It is difficult –  coming out of a tradition and at the same time finding a way to be oneself. Perhaps it doesn’t do to dwell on it too much. Perhaps the thing to do is just to keep working away. Keep writing. Stuff talent.







  1. A nice riff, but in some ways the Eliot essay is a red herring. The word “talent” only appears in the heading, and it would probably be clearer if it were omitted there completely, leaving the essay as a piece about the individual and his/her literary context (section 1) and the way in which a poem emerges and needs to emerge as something separate from the poet (section 2). The trouble is that Eliot doesn’t emerge from the essay as a particularly lucid thinker.

    Talent has become a bit of a weasel word. I was reminded of two incidents. One was when a not particularly interesting person I met said she was thrilled to have a new job “which can use all my talents”. I prevented myself in the nick of time from saying how lucky she was to have so many. The second was when I said to a life coach I was consulting that I believed everyone had a particular gift that they needed to develop. He responded – “No, Antony, the fact is that a great many people have no particular talent at all”.

    It’s always rather humbling to realise that one’s own talents are limited. But I do feel increasingly that the poetry scene nowadays – which everyone says is thriving – is characterised by an overabundance of people writing (including myself) and a severe shortage of people reading. I can’t help feeling that the situation needs to be reversed – but that might demand a sacrifice of the ego that many of us would find difficult…

  2. Thanks Antony — I am fond of herrings, the redder the better. It is not a new situation to feel more people are writing than reading. People have been bewailing that for a surprisingly long time. However, sales of books are indubitably down. That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that people are reading less poetry. Buying a book, as I know to my cost, is not the same as reading it. As publisher, I want people both to buy my publications [i]and[/i] read them. Asking a lot, that… 🙂

  3. Shortly after your response, I came across John Heath-Stubbs’ poem “The Frog and the Nightingale”, which seems apposite –

    Hearing a nightingale one evening sing,
    A frog from its puddle opined:
    “Among those senseless twittering roulades
    Occasionally you note
    A deep hoarse croaking, which evinces
    Definite marks of talent.

    Eh me, what a frog is lost in him!”

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