A Cultural Agenda for Our Time

Philip Jeffery:

One friday afternoon in November 1948, T. S. Eliot opened a new chapter in American culture policy. Eliot, just two weeks removed from winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, spoke at the invitation of the Library of Congress on Edgar Allan Poe’s significance as a poet. He derided Poe as immature and sloppy — his kindest comment was that Poe was at heart a “displaced European” — but found it significant that the French symbolist poets Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Valéry all drew extensively on Poe. Poe’s careless style-over-substance approach, Eliot explained, looked to the French symbolists like an avant-garde forebear of la poésie pure — the point at which subject matter would cease to matter, while poetic technique, theory, and the artistic process in itself would be all-important. Valéry in particular held up the individual artist and his artistic process as the ideal central concern of any artistic “content.” Eliot lamented this development, but nonetheless saw it as the legitimate and historically inevitable development of Western poetry. To reject la poésie pure “would be a lapse from what is in any case a highly civilized attitude to a barbarous one.”