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Poetry Communicates Before It Is Understood

Recently whilst reading an article in NATE’s excellent Teaching English I came across this from TS Eliot: ‘Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood’.

I think this is a fascinating idea to contemplate. First, I’m interesting in the qualifier ‘genuine’. Does this therefore imply in Eliot’s mind there is genuine and then disingenuous poetry? Perhaps, disingenuous, as opposed to say bad poetry, suggests it is not written with feeling or sincerity. This is an interesting qualifier to use for what makes poetry good or bad.

However, I’m even more interested in the general thrust of the claim. What I think Eliot is saying, here, is that the best poems have a way of making us feel something before we fully understand why or how it makes us feel this way. A poem, or rather ‘genuine poetry’, exists first of all as an emotive, affective experience and then as an intellectual or analytic one.

This also made me wonder what, if any, pedagogic implications might come from this observation. If there is some truth in the idea, and undoubtedly there is, that poetry has the capacity to be meaningful first at an emotive level before it is meaningful at an analytic level, then how might we play to this in our teaching?

Perhaps, it might encourage us to place greater emphasis, at least to start, on the kinds of feelings poetry can produce in us. We can, for example, become ever more attuned to what resonates about the poem, even without wanting or expecting any full understanding as to why it resonates. Eliot’s claim perhaps encourages us to focus on the poem from a distance first, to read and enjoy it, and then to begin to drill into how it is constructed. We can begin with initial response, valuing this as a core way that poems ‘communicate’, before then working towards interpretation or analysis. It encourages us to start with affect and response and then to think about analysis, which for us likely means its language.


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