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T. S. Eliot, The Art of Poetry No. 1

T. S. Eliot, The Art of Poetry No. 1

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Published by The Paris Review
The Paris Review's first poet interview with T. S. Eliot—from the Spring/Summer 1959 issue.
The Paris Review's first poet interview with T. S. Eliot—from the Spring/Summer 1959 issue.

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Published by: The Paris Review on Apr 01, 2011
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The interview took place in New York, at the apartment of Mrs. Louis Henry Cohn, of House of Books, Ltd., who is a friendof Mr. and Mrs. Eliot. The bookcases of the attractive living roomcontain a remarkable collection of modern authors. On a wall nearthe entrance hangs a drawing of Mr. Eliot, done by his sister-in-law,Mrs. Henry Ware Eliot. An inscribed wedding photograph of theEliots stands in a silver frame on a table. Mrs. Cohn and Mrs. Eliotsat on a sofa at one end of the room, while Mr. Eliot and the inter-viewer faced each other in the center. The microphone of a taperecorder lay on the floor between them.Mr. Eliot looked particularly well. He was visiting the UnitedStates briefly on his way back to London from a holiday inNassau. He was tanned, and he seemed to have put on weight inthe three years since the interviewer had seen him. Altogether, helooked younger and seemed jollier. He frequently glanced at Mrs.Eliot during the interview, as if he were sharing with her an answerwhich he was not making.The interviewer had talked with Mr. Eliot previously inLondon. The small office at Faber and Faber, a few flights aboveRussell Square, displays a gallery of photographs on its walls: here
is a large picture of Virginia Woolf, with an inset portrait of PiusXII; here are I. A. Richards, Paul Valéry, W.B. Yeats, Goethe,Marianne Moore, Charles Whibley, Djuna Barnes, and others.Many young poets have stared at the faces there, during a talkwith Mr. Eliot. One of them has told a story that illustrates someof the unsuspected in Mr. Eliot’s conversation. After an hour of serious literary discussion, Mr. Eliot paused to think if he had afinal word of advice; the young poet, an American, was about togo up to Oxford as Mr. Eliot had done forty years before. Then, asgravely as if he were recommending salvation, Mr. Eliot advisedthe purchase of long woolen underwear because of Oxford’s dampstone. Mr. Eliot is able to be avuncular while he is quite aware of comic disproportion between manner and message.Similar combinations modified many of the comments that arereported here, and the ironies of gesture are invisible on the page.At times, actually, the interview moved from the ironic and themildly comic to the hilarious. The tape is punctuated by the head-back boom-boom of Mr. Eliot’s laughter, particularly in responseto mention of his early derogation of Ezra Pound, and to a ques-tion about the unpublished, and one gathers improper, King Bolopoems of his Harvard days.
 —Donald Hall, 1959
Perhaps I can begin at the beginning. Do you remember thecircumstances under which you began to write poetry in St. Louiswhen you were a boy?
I began I think about the age of fourteen, under the inspirationof Fitzgerald’s
Omar Khayyam
to write a number of very gloomyand atheistical and despairing quatrains in the same style, which
fortunately I suppressed completely—so completely that theydon’t exist. I never showed them to anybody. The first poem thatshows is one which appeared first in the
Smith Academy Record 
and later in
The Harvard Advocate
which was written as an exercisefor my English teacher and was an imitation of Ben Jonson. Hethought it very good for a boy of fifteen or sixteen. Then I wrote afew at Harvard, just enough to qualify for election to an editorshipon
The Harvard Advocate
which I enjoyed. Then I had an outburstduring my junior and senior years. I became much more prolific,under the influence first of Baudelaire and then of Jules Laforgue,whom I discovered I think in my junior year at Harvard.
Did anyone in particular introduce you to the French poets?Not Irving Babbitt, I suppose.
No, Babbitt would be the last person! The one poem thatBabbitt always held up for admiration was Gray’s
. Andthat’s a fine poem but I think this shows certain limitations onBabbitt’s part, God bless him. I have advertised my source, I think;it’s Arthur Symons’s book on French poetry, which I came acrossin the Harvard Union. In those days the Harvard Union was ameeting place for any undergraduate who chose to belong to it.They had a very nice little library, like the libraries in manyHarvard houses now. I liked his quotations and I went to a foreignbookshop somewhere in Boston (I’ve forgotten the name andI don’t know whether it still exists) which specialized in Frenchand German and other foreign books and found Laforgue, andother poets. I can’t imagine why that bookshop should have had afew poets like Laforgue in stock. Goodness knows how long they’dhad them or whether there were any other demands for them.
When you were an undergraduate, were you aware of the

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