Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Week Fifty-Three - Jeanette

 Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T.S. Eliot (1909-1962)
Recommended by Jude

People spend years studying the poetry of T.S. Eliot. They don’t usually chuck it into their brain at Victoria Coach Station.

I did not even have a week in which to read this. The combination of adding an extra book to Two Readers and the cumulative effect of the occasional late post left me with eight books in December. But, 2013, throw all the shit you want at me (as I just wrote, today it’s a malfunctioning laptop power pack, meaning I’m racing to do this standing up in Hillsborough's Wetherspoons as the battery life ticks down and new year revellers start piling in) but, fuck you, I’m finishing Two Readers on time.

I want my world to end with a bang, not a whimper.

Jude writes, in her dedication at the front of my copy of Collected Poems 1909-1962, that Eliot’s poetry ‘made me realise the real magic of the English language.’ Perhaps, then, it’s not such a bad thing that circumstance has forced me to pelt through it. I’m reacting in a very primal way, thinking of the way the words dance on the page, feeling the direct relevance that the poems brought to my world.

            We shall not cease from exploration.
                        (‘Little Gidding’)

I saw Jude last night – the wonderful Jude. We were with others, so we didn’t get too long to reflect on the project, but I will tell her now that Two Readers has been one of the most satisfying creative experiences of my life. Even though Jude’s posts weren’t regular, they were brilliant and inspiring, and the credit for turning my idea for book recommendations from friends into a blog entirely lies with her. That’s what true friendship does: one of you has an idea, the other has an idea, you do something amazing together. Iron sharpens iron. I have felt her hands on my back, supporting me, in so many precious ways this year.

            What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
            Out of this stony rubbish?
                        (‘The Waste Land’)

‘The Waste Land’ came into Jude’s life when she was in sixth form, which provides a curious parallel with the book I recommended for her. We’ve often talked of what made us want to write, and what made us writers (two different things). That era, age sixteen-to-eighteen, is perhaps the key one of my life, and I know she feels similarly.

            The tiger springs in the new year.
            Us he devours.

Jude and I have each had a very difficult 2013, for different reasons. But through it we have been there for one another. Writing about the people very very closest to me, of whom Jude is one, is not easy. Because there is so much to say about someone I love so very much. So perhaps less is more.

            Both intimate and unidentifiable.
                        (‘Little Gidding’)

Just as there’s so much to say about these bloody incredible poems. (And so little time to say it.)

The first of my favourites is ‘The Hollow Men’. I knew I’d love it just from the Heart Of Darkness epigraph. And then this comes…

            Between the idea
            And the reality
            Between the motion
            And the act
            Falls the shadow
                        (‘The Hollow Men’)

That’s exactly how I’ve felt this year. I’ve felt shadows in my mind, on my heart, in my creative process, coming between thought and result. How can one fight a shadow? I’ve tried. And I am hard on myself when I fail. But Eliot's words buoyed me, they swaddled me, they told me that I didn't need to hate my failure quite as much as I do.

Many of the poems have a strong religious element. There’s clearly a schooled element to Eliot’s Christian history, but there's also playfulness. Take ‘The Hippopotamus’. Its opening lines relate to how huge the animal is, but that it is ‘merely flesh and blood’ compared to the True Church. The poem vacillates between a seemingly genuine devotional fervour and a ludicrous piss-take, particularly with Eliot's glorious image of the hippo ‘performing on a harp of gold’.

For Eliot does have quite the sense of humour, and he sometimes tries to ‘help’ the reader with notes and references, particularly in ‘The Waste Land’.

I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken: it was reported to me from Sydney, Australia.
                        (‘Notes on The Waste Land’)

Cheers, Thomas Stearns.

But what of ‘The Waste Land’ itself? It is astonishing. Imagine everything in English literature from Sir Gawain And The Green Knight to Lily Allen. I am simply overwhelmed. The word awesome is so overused, but with reference to 'The Waste Land', I mean it in its original I-am-struck-with-awe sense. Written in 1922, my initial impression is that its some sweep of post-Great War British culture, putting it in the context of the long Christian epoch of the country: of how societies fracture and repair, how traditions break and form. I also loved the references to Dante's Divine Comedy, my only other poetry foray this year. I haven't had the time to research anything of Eliot or his literary intentions, but I have learned from the book jacket that he was an American who settled in the UK in 1915. Perhaps that completely scuppers my theory, but perhaps not: the eyes of the new sometimes open wider, and cry fresher tears.

Since ‘The Waste Land’ is so impossible to sum up, perhaps I should just leave it there before I embarrass myself, and conclude with mentioning my other favourite poem, ‘East Coker’, part of Four Quarters.

            As we grow older
            The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated.
                        (‘East Coker’)

This long poem feels like a very personal reflection, a song of experience, one which lights the bonds of humanity. Those ties that transcend the spoken and pull us on to the new. I expect that’s why it has hit me so very hard on this, the old year’s night. I have read fifty-three books and I have loved fifty-three people. I'll never do it again. But I'll never forget it.

            In my end is my beginning.
                          ('East Coker')