Saturday, 17 July 2021

The Waste Land

Goodness, that was an intense evening. 

I was researching something, which led to a reading of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. I was slightly surprised I'd never heard it before. I adored poetry when I was a child. I grew up surrounded by the Oxford Book of Children's Verse, Edward Lear, and various other compendiums of children's poetry (when was the last time you heard the word 'compendium'?). I had contemporary work too, such as Please Mrs Butler, and collections that included Benjamin Zephaniah and Shamsur Rahman. I even named one of my hamsters Shamsur. In adolescence, I hit my sultry phase and fell in love with Shelley, Byron and Rosetti. If there was a goblin market or a wisp on the morass, I'd have my face pressed against it. In fact, I wrote a lot of poetry before I ever wrote a novel. Which fascinates me now, when I lecture in the history of creative writing, because, as a species, we appear to have begun with written verse long before creative prose. 

It's funny, but I never write poetry anymore.

Sometimes, I look through the competition listings, and I think how much easier it would be to enter poetry competitions instead of prose, because they're invariably much shorter. Usually around forty lines versus a minimum of two-thousand words for short stories. But I never attempt it. I've lost the knack. Poems are often shorter, but they're damned hard. You need a certain lucidity of thought that is much easier to find when you're young. I think it's because your emotions during adolescence are so strong and unfettered. Deeply-felt emotion is the raw material from which poetry is formed. When you get older, and especially if you train yourself to write novels, you shackle your thoughts with reason and chain them up in order. It's no longer possible for many people, myself included, to reach in and take hold of those feral thoughts. Not in the way that's necessary for really good, honest poetry. I think that's why so many of the greats died young, went mad or ended in tragedy - poets don't always function well within the constraints of society, and those constraints are particularly tough in this modern age. There's less space afforded to rhyme over reason, which is what Eliot is talking about above. Words, and the rhythm of words, that you instinctually understand even when you can't explain them. 

Anyway, if I'm going to be brutally honest, I always got T. S. Eliot confused with C. S. Lewis, for no good reason other than the initials. I'm sure Anthony Hopkins playing C. S. Lewis in Shadowlands didn't help, either. When I think of Till We Have Faces, I have to pause and think about it for a moment. I also get him confused with Rudyard Kipling, and had to Google 'who wrote The Path Through the Woods.' I think the Oxford BoCV and other compendiums messed with me a bit as a child, because they grouped so many famous poets and poems together that they blurred a little. I was always more interested in the verse than the author at that age, it's not like you could just Google them and learn who they were. So each became each other. 

I vaguely recall learning once that T. S. Eliot was responsible for the collection of feline poems which the musical Cats was based on, including the notorious Macavity. I had forgotten that fact and just relearned it. The other thing I didn't realise was that the title of Iain Banks's novel Consider Phlebas was taken from a line in The Waste LandConsider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you. Interesting nugget of knowledge. He also wrote The Cocktail Party, which I have a strange reminiscence of. I have a strong feeling that I studied that play at drama school when I was around sixteen or seventeen. I feel like I remember acting parts of it out, saying the lines, but it's a very faded memory of a studio room... and I can't quite tell if it's real or not. Perhaps I will read that at some point and see if any of the lines jog my memory.

So, he's a penman I know in passing, but had never really read. 

This reading by Alex Guinness - wow. I just fell for this. It brought back every reason I ever loved poetry and, again, I'm surprised I'd never read it before. It's right up my alley. What surprised me is that it reminded me of both dated and contemporary poets. I feel like there's a moment of Dylan Thomas in there and also Kae Tempest. There's something about 'hurry up please its time,' (sic.) and the general day-to-day moments, the simple observations of people's lives amidst the more dramatic imagery, that makes me think of both Thomas's poems and Tempest's Brand New Ancients. I find that link fascinating, that poets from long ago and right this moment both bring humanity's fears and fierceness together over a simple pint. And there's a rhythm around 'If there were water we should stop and drink, Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think,' that is wholly Tempest in her flow. If there's a poet reading, I'd love to know what that particular rhythm is? Is it just IP, or is there something more to it? I don't have the technical language to describe the way poems are constructed. 

So, yes... a very nice evening yesterday. I really should read more poetry. 

Just after I wrote all of that, I found the following - very 80s - documentary about  The Waste Land. It was really interesting to hear that others feel part of the success of the poem is owed to its ability to echo the voice of other poets, and to its attention to the details of daily life. That's mildly reassuring that I do still have a partial ear for poetic form.

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