Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Importance of being Tom

I never quite got T.S. Eliot – all that rock and water – but I had seen Robert Webb dancing in spandex (see below) and knew if anyone could help me to understand the poet it would be him. So I watched his My life in Verse on BBC 2. This year Big Brother and Davina will have to carry on without me.

It was a classroom encounter with The Love Life of J. Alfred Prufrock which awakened a life long passion in Robert. He was a troubled teenager having lost his beloved mother. He described the dream one has when one has lost a loved one and in the dream they are there and one is whole and complete. On awakening one realises they are gone and he likens this to Eliot’s poetry which makes him feel totally awake – and he felt ‘unlocked a door for him.’

Eliot’s modernism was a new way of talking about things although some thought he was deliberately obscure and Kingsley Amis described it as an exclusive club to which he didn’t belong. Robert discussed the difficulty of modern poetry with Clive James and they compared the best ‘pulling’ poems including some by E E Cummings which ‘couldn’t be read on air.’

Robert fell in love with his wife Abigail when she read him a poem she had written for him.

I enjoyed the film and found Robert to be a likeable, sensitive guide and it made me want to know more about Eliot the man. Luckily Arena has just done a programme on Tom so I could fill in the gaps. He was born in St Louis, Missouri but his forebears were from Somerset UK and as a young man he came to Britain.

In later life he said:

My poetry 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.

In 1915 aged 27 he married Vivienne and worked in a bank but she was mentally unstable and the marriage wasn’t happy. They separated and she ended her life in a mental home where he failed to visit her. He was by now a successful poet and a good hands-on publisher with Faber and Faber. It was here he met his second wife Valerie – 37 years his junior and his true love. They married in 1957 and had 8 happy years until his death in1965. He had always been a heavy smoker and although Valerie devoted her life to taking care of him his lungs eventually gave out.

The eternally running musical Cats was inspired by his poem McGonogle and Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row is said to be a re- writing of The Waste Land.

Ted Huges whose work was published by Eliot, when asked how he felt about him said it was like standing on a quay and seeing the Queen Mary coming towards you. He also worked with Tom Stoppard and W H Auden but rejected Orwell’s Animal Farm. Jeanette Winterson said he was a man who could hear the grass grow – such was his keen awareness of everything around him. He was said to be a brilliant poet and essayist but also a brilliant publisher.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature and he is commemorated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Ezra Pound was one of the first to recognise his talent – was blown away by the Prufrock poem and insisted it should be published.

T S Eliot has sometimes been accused of anti Semitism but Leonard Woolf, who was Jewish, judged that Eliot was probably ‘slightly anti- semitic in the sort of vague way which is not uncommon. He would have denied it quite genuinely.’ This was the fifties. In 2003 a previously unknown cache of letters revealed that in the early 1940’s Eliot was actively helping Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria to re-settle in Britain and America.

I vaguely remember The Cocktail Party – one of his plays in the West End in the fifties, but as someone said in the Arena programme no-one could understand his plays on a first viewing. On his death his ashes were buried in East Coker, from whence his ancestors had set out for America. East Coker is one of his Quartet poems and coincidentally is where we used to stay when looking for a home in Somerset.

Here is just a verse of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an over whelming question…

Oh do not ask, ‘What is it?’

Let us go and make our visit.

It worked for Robert.

The URL for the video below is:


R. Sherman said...

Eliot is one of those poets who come to you later in life. I must confess, I wasn't a big fan when I was in college, but I picked up his collected verse cheap somewhere a few years ago and rediscovered him. Bottom line: I think you have to have some life experience before you can truly appreciate those of his ilk.

BTW, something good from St. Louis, eh, dear?


Jimmy Bastard said...

Uncanny Pat. I read aloud these few verses only a week ago, as we stood and said our last farewell to our brother on the shore of the loch.

"I grow old... I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea.
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown.
Till human voices wake us, and we drown."

Eryl Shields said...

I love TS Eliot, don't get him but love him nonetheless. Off to check iPlayer now to see if I can watch the show, x

PI said...

Randall: he's growing on me. I though you'd like he was a local lad.

Jimmy: that is strange - but what a good choice. It was read on the programme and I liked the sound of it. For some reason I saw a picture of Alec Guiness. Maybe he read it.
One thing I learned - he and his wife lived opposite a pub which explains a poem which is the sort of thing you would hear at closing time across the street.

Eryl: I'm glad I made the effort because I know I'm going to realise more the more I read him.

R. Sherman said...

Jimmy: "Eat A Peach"

Took me back to my bearded, long-haired, bandanna wearing days driving to Yosemite National Park listing to the album of the same name on the eight-track in a 1975 AMC Gremlin.

Good times.


kenju said...

I studied him in college, but I didn't understand much of what I read. Perhaps I'll try it again.

PI said...

Randall: 'Do I dare to eat a peach?' I couldn't get what would be the danger of eating a peach? Eating an apple with false clackers would be hazardous but a soft peach you could eat with just your gums. What am I missing?

J@udy: you've got a head start:)

Eryl Shields said...

Pat ~ I think the peach thing refers to the intense sensuality of eating a fruit that is smooth and downy (like the woman's arm in Prufrock), highly fragrant and flavoursome, drips when you bite into it so you have to watch those white trousers, and has a stone at its heart.

I found the prog on iplayer and felt the odd tear drip from the end of my nose as I watched. Off to look out my ee cummins collected to find those poems that are so rude they cannot be read on air!

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

Eliot's "Prufrock" to Robert Webb's "Flashdance" - from the sublime to the ridiculous. Just studying Eliot's poetry was an education in itself, thanks to Miss Bennett my English Lit. teacher.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

It is strange...I have ALWAYS tgought of him as English, even though I know he was born in America. What he saud about his writing and the sensebility of his writing is no doubt right on the money.....!
Such an interesting talented complex man.

PI said...

Eryol; ah I see. I remember the arm bit. Or perhaps something more intimate - like D H Lawrence's fig. I pore over his selected poems and whilst I relish the phrases I share K Amis's feeling of an exclusive club to which I don't belong. Let me know about the Cummingsif you find it.

Daphne: how I wish we had done it at school. Too Modernist I suppose. I'd love to attend a brain storm on him. There must be some references which are set in stone but I think looking at his life - especially with his first wife there could be lots of interpretations of his work.

Naomi: it was a surprise to me. You wouldn't guess from his speaking voice and I knew his ashes were in East Coker. I think I have to do some more reading to satisfy my curiosity.

rashbre said...

I've enjoyed T.S.Eliot since back in schooldays so its good to see you quoting a piece.

The section you show also reminds me of another more recent brawling poet/songster in the form of Tom Waits. Check out 9th and Hennepin for some similar imagery to this section.

I may just load it on my place as a tune.

Kim Ayres said...

Unfortunately, since when I was about 13 someone once said, "Do you know that TS Eliot is an anagram of Toilets?" and since then, I've never been able to get it out of my head when his name is mentioned

problemchildbride said...

From a child I had the idea of Eliot as not a very nice man. My granny told me The Waste Land was a very great poem and it was one she read every few years, but that Eliot himself was not a very nice man at all. I think this has coloured my opinion of him, for better or worse, ever since.

I haven't actually read the Waste Land all the way through, although I know some passages of it fairly well. I've read Prufrock though. In both I found a lot I liked but before all of that I'd read more incidental biographical snippets about him and the poems never quite took me away from the feeling that he was a man who tried to ingratiate himself by becoming more English than the english, that he was an anti-semite and the thing about abandoning his mad wife. This is a good example of why it is better to read a poet before reading about him or her.On reading about him here and there today before writing this, I see now, with older, more adult eyes, that: his marriage was clearly over before Vivien was institutonalized, and was, almost from the start, a source of great frustration to him (Virginia Woolf said of him "He was one of those poets who live by scratching, and his wife was his itch."; he himself suffered in his mind, later on; His anti-semitism was over-blown and he had many Jewish champions.

So I have softened to the most egregious of the charges against him.

Still his biography trips me up though, despite my knowing that's not necessarily a good thing to let happen. He seemed like a such a deeply and dismally conventional man, drawn by and even worshipful of convention. he was an American but a royalist, an Anglo-Catholic, and by all accounts a very strait-laced, uptight, fear-driven man. But his words and vision and his ability to be so highly aware of the physical world about him and it emotional resonances for us, and communicate that so well to the rest of us, defy that to adegree, making him a puzzle. how could a man that agile in his mind be so willing to bend himself to temporal institutions and societal powers, may of which were unjust.

Of course poets don't have to be nice people. It might be better if they're sometimes not., But there is something antithetical about a conformist poet whatever his or her native talent might be. This is what i thought about him - which wasn't that often - in my teens and 20s and I haven't really

What I should really do though, instead of blahing on here, is go and read his actual poems. It must be more than a decade since I last have, and as Rand says, he might be a poet moe easily understood with a few more years under the skull. I might be less Bolshie in my inclinations and more modulated now. In fact I know I am, I jsut have never read Eliot as an "adult" really - something that I didn't become until I was 30.

To be honest, reading his work now would be almost like the first time it's been so long. But the fact that it's been such a long time says its own thing too.

Sorry to be so biographical in my response to this, but I don't know how else to respond, certainly not academically because I just don't know enough. On the strength of this post though, I feel like reading some Eliot tonight! Maybe I'll come back tomorrow raving about him, with the scales fallen from my eyes!

PI said...

Rashbre: thanks - I'll check that out. Tom Waits has always been a favourite.

Kim: thank you for that little gem. I shall now be similarly afflicted!

Sam: thank you so much for your - typically - generous comment. The two things you mentioned were the two things that troubled me but one has to remember the mores of that time which were quite different. I have a Collected Verses which I keep in the loo and I read and read - love the words and wonder about the meanings but sometimes the meaning doesn't matter there is such potent imagery. I'm glad you feel stirred to read him - now you're grown up. I'm not quite there yet:)

problemchildbride said...

Love Clive James. I'd watch or read anything he's had anything to do with.

rashbre said...

Here you go

Kanani said...

I love the poem, however I remember reading it when I was younger and not really "getting it." I aged about 15 years, and it all fell into place. I mean, I understand it probably as well as anyone does. That's not saying anything deep, but well, when speaking of Eliot, I suppose everything comes off as fairly glib.

PI said...

Sam: Clive James - there's a man I'd like to have on my 'folk I'd like to have a jar and a jaw with' list.

PI said...

Rashbre: thank you for that link - it's a great treat and so beautifully clear.

All: follow Rashbre's link for something special in the manner of this post's subject.

Kanani: I think familiarity eventually brings a glimmer of understanding- whether it's what he had in mind is beside the point. I always think Will the Shake would have been amused at the millions of interpretations scholars put on his work.