“The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.”
This quote, taken from Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," reflects so much of what Eliot grappled with in his life and his writing, especially Four Quartets (see here for my thoughts on this work). The ideas of influences, novelty, and individual poetic voice play well with what later became a focus on the intersection of the temporal with the eternal. The Paris Review interview was conducted by poet Donald Hall in 1959, a mere six years prior to Eliot's death. By this time, Eliot had completed the bulk of his life's work and was aware of his age and cautious about his potential irrelevance. The interview was not among my favorites so far, but it did provide a few interesting points, including Hall's opening statement: "Perhaps I can begin at the beginning." Hall is, of course, referring to Eliot's youth in St. Louis, but it seems to me such a loaded statement to put to a man who once wrote:
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning. ("Little Gidding" 214-215)
Actually, throughout the interview, I got the impression that Hall was not much of an interviewer. He alternately asks loaded questions (essentially answering them himself, which Eliot calls him on at one point) and facile questions such as "How does the writing of a play differ from the writing of poems?" or "I wonder if you could give advice to a young poet about what disciplines or attitudes he might cultivate to improve his art." Both are legitimate concepts, but Hall didn't ask the questions in such a way as to garner a strong response.
A few of Eliot's comments struck me as thought-provoking or inspiring: "I don't think that one can be a bilingual poet. . . . I think one language must be the one you express yourself in, in poetry, and you've got to give up the other for that purpose" (72). Regular Rumination's post today was from poet Rhina P. Espaillat, a bilingual poet who uses both languages in the poem Lu posted. Despite this lovely example, I think I tend to agree with Eliot, but I'm not sure. Your thoughts?
I also loved Eliot's reflections on his early work:
In The Waste Land, I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying. (79)and in response to whether the Four Quartets was his best work:
Yes, and I'd like to feel that they get better as they go on. The second is better than the first, the third is better than the second, and the fourth is the best of all. At any rate, that's the way I flatter myself. (79)and finally, on considering his work part of the tradition of American literature:
Yes, but I couldn't put it any more definitely than that, you see. It wouldn't be what it is, and I imagine it wouldn't be so good; putting it as modestly as I can, it wouldn't be what it is if I'd been born in England, and it wouldn't be what it is if I'd stayed in America. It's a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America. (85)Like the Munro interview, which I didn't prefer because it came later in a practiced career, tinged somehow by the reality of celebrity, this interview seems guarded. There are undeniably funny moments and some moments of honest reflection, but overall, it felt like a Thing To Do as a famous poet rather than a legitimate and intimate conversation.