In 1956, Eliot published On Poetry and Poets, his first major compilation of previously published essays since Selected Essays in 1932. Among the essays collected in the later volume is “What Is Minor Poetry?,” which Eliot had first delivered as an address before the Association of Bookmen of Swansea and West Wales in September 1944 and then published in The Sewanee Review.
Eliot quickly makes his aim clear: To dispel any “derogatory association” that the term minor poet might inspire. In keeping with that aim, he also hopes to establish what kinds of minor poetry there may be, and, more important perhaps, “why [we] should . . . read it.”
Eliot begins by identifying minor poetry as anthology poetry, by which he means collections of work by new, young poets. After a lengthy digression concerning the craze for anthologies themselves, a craze that he likens to an addiction among a certain cast of readership, Eliot leads to a definition not of minor poetry, but of minor poets. Eliot had already taken care to protest that he did not want to get into a debate over who are the minor and who are the major poets. To say that a minor poet is, then, a poet who wrote only short poems or whose reputation rests on a single, very long poem, begs the question, and requires exceptions—John Donne, for one—but does not debate who is minor and who is major.
By this point in Eliot’s presentation, he has already identified such indisputably major poets as Edmund Spenser and William Wordsworth, and Donne and William Blake, as well as such indisputably minor ones as Robert Southey and Thomas Moore. The reader begins to recognize that, even should there be no clear way to distinguish between the one and the other, be it as poetry or poets, literary cultures certainly do as much. To know how or why, then, does become a valid course of inquiry.
A poem’s length cannot be the determining factor, since there are minor long poems and major short ones. Even determining relative quality cannot help the sorting process, since that would require subjective criteria and impressonistic judgments. Eliot does take the risk of concluding, nevertheless, that what makes a poem major is that its whole winds up being greater than the sum of its parts.
This seems to come down to meaning that the poem is so much of its time and place that it reflects those coordinates without necessitating the reader’s personal knowledge of them. Thus, George Herbert, the 17th-century religious poet, holds one’s attention because his view of things is so thoroughly Elizabethan as to need no other introduction. Herbert’s near contemporary Robert Herrick, meanwhile, Eliot can dismiss as a lessthan- major poet who wrote short poems because the short poems that Herrick wrote show “no such continuous conscious purpose.” Now Eliot seems to be getting somewhere: The major poem or poet expresses a unique view of experience—has, in a word, vision.
Throughout the essay, Eliot continues to stress the importance of what he calls vision or “a unity of underlying pattern” in a poet’s work in order to help determine whether that poet is minor or major. Although he plays this determining factor in a variety of ways, he always seems to come back to the idea that, the quality being uniform otherwise, there is something distinctive and identifiable in each poem that enables one to know that particular poet and his or her work. One need not know the whole of a major poet’s work, then, to come to know the unique view and voice that the works express, although knowing the whole corpus of a particular poet, should that poet be of a major status, enhances the appreciation of each work in the canon. The idea, then, is clearly one of continuity from one work to another, as much as an underlying unity of point of view or vision.
It might be noted as well, nevertheless, that Eliot has moved away from defining minor poetry. By his definition, it would appear, for example, that a major poet cannot write a minor poem. Yet Eliot himself, who is more certainly a major poet by his own definition, included in Collected Poems, 1909– 1935 a section of his own poems called “Minor Poems,” among which, by his own claim, are poems that are all distinctively Eliot.
In his own defense, however, some of the poems that he had included in this manner—“Five Finger Exercises” and “Landscapes,” for example—are manifestly Eliot only after the fact. “Five Finger Exercises,” for example, can be seen to be characteristic of Eliot’s poetry after he published Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in 1939, while “Landscapes” bespeaks his style more, once its technique is viewed in terms of Four Quartets, completed in 1943, a work whose four component sections are each inspired by the features, associations, and significances of a particular place.
It would be fair to say, then, that that whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, but that yet is identifiable in each part, and that then goes on further to form the corpus of a poet who is major, can only be known and recognized once the whole is complete. As Eliot will himself say in terms of judging the relative merits of living poets in these terms, “we ought to stick to the question: ‘Are they genuine?’ and leave the question whether they are great to the only tribunal which can decide: time.” As to what constitutes being genuine, Eliot had already defined it as whether “this poet [has] something to say [that is] a little different from what anyone has said before, and . . . found not only a different way of saying it, but the different way of saying it which expresses the difference in what he is saying.” This is not circular reason. Rather it is hallmark of any great artist in any medium: uniqueness.