Monday 9 July 2018

Little Gidding 8 July 2018

I hope you will forgive me for beginning with myself but since I am not a scholar, let alone specifically of T S Eliot, I fear I have little or nothing to add to the academic knowledge of him or his work. You will get that soon enough [Prof Seamus Perry – rather marvellous as it turned out]. Please regard this as a brief hors d’oeuvre or prelude (even Prelude) of an Eliotean kind.

To begin, therefore, at the beginning I began to write poetry at school, at the age of seventeen, when instead of concentrating on the Physics, Chemistry and Zoology A levels that might have qualified me for medical school I started picking up thin volumes of poetry in the school library as a form of avoidance and distraction. I had no particular preference and next to no knowledge. I was of a refugee family without any substantial collection of books at home. I had dropped English Literature at O level. Poems were, if you like, another form of refuge. And sometime, soon after, following a conversation with a friend and fellow student, on the spur of the moment, I made up my mind to be a poet.

I tell you this to set a background for my reading of Eliot, to whose work I was introduced three years later, at art college in Leeds where I was studying Fine Art, hoping to become a poet and painter. The man who introduced me was Martin Bell, a poet deservedly well known in his day and, undeservedly, less well known now.

Martin came in once a week on a Wednesday afternoon and those interested in poetry could go to his room on the third floor and engage in discussion of the poems he put in front of us. Having begun my reading in a chaotic manner, lurching this way and that in my tastes over the three years, without any guidance, the poets that most appealed to me before then were a miscellaneous bunch: Arthur Rimbaud, Rainer Maria Rilke, Keats, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Lovell Beddoes and the French Surrealists, particularly Jacques Prevert, Robert Desnos and Max Jacob as well as the Liverpool Poets and others of the time. Most of these I discovered, some in translation, through the cheap paperbacks then published by Penguin or second-hand in book shops. The surprise was that my taste in the French surrealists and Rimbaud was echoed, as I was to discover on our first meeting, by Martin Bell’s own chief loves.  

But Bell was, above all, an admirer of Eliot and it was he who introduced me, and indeed the few others who attended his sessions, to Eliot’s work as well as to Lowell, Wallace Stevens, John Crowe Ransom, Alexander Pope, Sylvia Plath, and many others.

Eliot struck the deepest chord. It is, perhaps, strange that that should have been the case. Strange for me, a poorly read painter with English as only his second-language and, more importantly, one born of a Jewish family that could immediately recognise itself, according to Eliot, in those figures squatting on windowsills who were ‘spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp, / Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London. I myself was spawned in Budapest and was certainly patched and peeled as a boy in London. I was supposed to be of the same tribe as Rachel who was busily tearing at grapes with murderous paws and with the Jew who was underneath the rats and everything else on the Rialto.

It didn’t seem to matter. All that has since been explored by Anthony Julius and others and I don’t intend to make a meal of it here. I wasn’t going to let anti-Semitism stand in the way of the intoxication and overwhelming importance of the poetry, a poetry that, for me, transcended such things. What its power seemed to show was that it wasn’t opinions that mattered but some hidden, barely conscious form of life that produced its own gifts, its own voice and register, a voice proposing that the sense of the world was not the same as a view of the world.

It was the early Eliot that first grabbed me and it is that excitement I want to focus on today. It is the anxious, apparently assured, but fragile, broken Eliot, the man whose imagination had emerged from a mental explosion and was still covered in clumps of earth and splinters of glass, that I want to conjure.

It wasn’t so much the magisterial tone and mysteriously bitchy and twitchy high-brow quatrains of some of the 1921 poems, poems such as A Cooking Egg, The Hippopotamus and Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service – smart, clever poems - that grabbed me, though they did leave a mark: it was, despite the anti-Semitic references, the high and low comedy of Sweeney Erect and Sweeney among the Nightingales. It was Sweeney meeting Agamemnon, and Sweeney meeting Ariadne. It was the comedy, the music and the elusive heave and depth of quatrains like:

Paint me a cavernous waste shore
  Cast in the unstilled Cyclades, 
Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks
  Faced by the snarled and yelping seas,

Display me Aeolus above
  Reviewing the insurgent gales
Which tangle Ariadne’s hair
  And swell with haste the perjured sails…

But why was it so powerful? This was the first big step in Eliot for me and frankly I did not know what the poem was about but I took to heart Eliot’s view that poems could communicate before they were understood. What after all was ‘understanding’? Was it knowing references, reading codes and solving problems? Was a poem a problem to be solved? I didn’t think so – did not feel so - but even if that were the case – and knowing and reading were certainly useful once the poem had communicated  - not knowing things was no barrier. Something ran underground, some hidden line of power, something perhaps like the oldest subway line in Budapest that you can’t see at street level, but whose vibration you can still feel beneath your feet. Maybe that is what poetry has always been: a rumbling under your feet. Let me read the whole of Sweeney Erect:

PAINT me a cavernous waste shore

  Cast in the unstilled Cyclades,

Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks

  Faced by the snarled and yelping seas.

Display me Aeolus above
  Reviewing the insurgent gales

Which tangle Ariadne’s hair

  And swell with haste the perjured sails.

Morning stirs the feet and hands

  (Nausicaa and Polypheme),
Gesture of orang-outang

  Rises from the sheets in steam.

This withered root of knots of hair

  Slitted below and gashed with eyes,

This oval O cropped out with teeth:
  The sickle motion from the thighs

Jackknifes upward at the knees

  Then straightens out from heel to hip

Pushing the framework of the bed

  And clawing at the pillow slip.

Sweeney addressed full length to shave

  Broadbottomed, pink from nape to base,

Knows the female temperament

  And wipes the suds around his face.

(The lengthened shadow of a man
  Is history, said Emerson

Who had not seen the silhouette

  Of Sweeney straddled in the sun).

Tests the razor on his leg

  Waiting until the shriek subsides.
The epileptic on the bed

  Curves backward, clutching at her sides.

The ladies of the corridor

  Find themselves involved, disgraced,

Call witness to their principles
  And deprecate the lack of taste

Observing that hysteria

  Might easily be misunderstood;

Mrs. Turner intimates

  It does the house no sort of good.

But Doris, towelled from the bath,

  Enters padding on broad feet,

Bringing sal volatile

  And a glass of brandy neat.

Part of that rumbling was the music, the sound-world of the verse. It made a gorgeous clashing noise in my inner ear in, for example, the consonant play of the first stanza: those bold anfractuous rocks, those yelping seas, and the wind blowing through the second stanza, where ‘Aeolus above’ is  ‘Reviewing the insurgent gales.’ The wind rises in the very name of Aeolus and is whipped to a frenzy by ‘reviewing’. These together constituted the sharp whistle of those insurgent gales driving the sea surge. The word insurgent contained the surge. Language was doing double duty. This was more than clever: it couldn’t simply be filed away as workmanlike onomatopoeia. That wind blew through the very bones and must have arisen from the very bones of the poem.

Secondly, and just as important, was that which I could not then contextualise but which reeked of an urgent other world of histories, myths and precisions. They were in one sense – in their mysteriousness - the equivalent of the Georgian poet W J Turner’s ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi’ and ‘shining Popocatepetl’ names that in his popular poem, Romance, took Turner by the hand as a boy. But Turner’s exoticisms were moments without much foundation. The names in Eliot were the noise of a substantial, dense world, a world with import, within not without me, pressing at nerves, touching on sensitive spots. Even an essentially uneducated young man who, at twenty, had yet to write a half-decent poem could feel that. 

It was a world that could also accommodate Sweeney and the landlady, the incident of the razor, the epileptic figure curving back, the shriek subsiding and finally the towelled Doris who enters padding on broad feet, bringing sal volatile and brandy neat. In fact it had to accommodate them in order to balance the poem. So an ambiguous low comedy that wasn’t quite comedy, at least no more comedy than one of those drawings of post-first world war Berlin by George Grösz, a comedy that, in this case, ended with the image of Doris, a character out of some domestic farce that might however turn sinister at any moment, a comedy that spoke of the graceless body rather than of the spirit, completed the register of a world in which anything could and did happen at once.

But all this was only preparation for The Waste Land.

My personal condition in terms of literature, and poetry in particular, was somewhat better prepared by then than it would have been even a year or two before but it was still pretty scant. Yet, if I had to say what it was drew me to The Waste Land, as it did to much if not all of Eliot, it was the sense of recognition, a recognition of glimpses and glances. The Waste Land seemed to me a strange yet familiar world of ghosts, fractures, visions, terrors and anxieties, sudden unspecified desires, hot intimate tensions, apocalypses, panics, rapid changes of direction, half-heard echoes and a fierce dramatic sense of constant presence as if simply too much were happening all at once and that that too-muchness was the world.

I was, of course, fascinated by the various quotations and associations with regard to which Eliot made a few gestures in his notes. By this time I knew a little about the Fisher King, the Sybils and about Ezra Pound, could trace ‘Mein Irisch Kind’ to its source in Tristan und Isolde, had some kind of handle on Webster and Dante and Baudelaire, and had read a good deal of Shakespeare (I was secretly educating myself through primary texts). I had actually trodden Margate Sands in our first few months in England in 1957. 

But while all this minimal, supplementary knowledge was of help in setting the narrative of the poem into some kind of order, it was never the supplementary knowledge – which, of course, I realised was not supplementary to Eliot but was the shattered archipelago on which he found himself  – but the direct insurgent gale of the verse and those intense brief voices and visions that, as they say, blew me away – and still does.

We know of course, through the drafts edited by Valerie Eliot, out of what chaotic flotsam and jetsam the poem arose and, from the various biographies, at what tension the material spurted out, in fragments and passages, the whole poem not one great planned-through voyage but one drowning after another, its narrative pruned into a kind of thematic coherence by Pound. 

But, if there wasn’t one single overarching narrative, what was it that drove the poem?

I did once ask Martin Bell what he thought The Waste Land was about. Sex, he leered, and that made a certain sense: after all there was all that uncertainty about sexuality, about Tiresias, about the invitation of Mr Eugenides, the Smyna merchant to a weekend at The Metropole, about what happens on the floor of that narrow canoe, about the terrible edge-of-hysteria domestic scene with Vivienne, or indeed those arms downed with light brown hair in Prufrock, the daunting sexual power of Grishkin in Whispers of Immortality and, of course, the fear of impotence right at the beginning of The Waste Land:  those burnings, those deserts, that drowning.

All that made a good case, especially to a Freudian-Marxist like Martin. Nor could I, or would I even now, deny the claims of that reading.  It is clearly there. But The Waste Land draws its power from other sources too. From the visions of destruction in the First World War – Prufrock had been dedicated to Jean Verdenal mort aux Dardanelles – from the poem’s terrible regrets, from its loss of one identity after another, from its desperate desire to seek shelter in Christianity or some other religious domain, from its evocation of mystical hallucinatory states, from the Buddha balanced by Madame Sosostris, from those trawls along city streets and along rivers and canals. In other words, from the sheer bursting energy that is always at the point of exhaustion.

I would like at this point to read the last section of The Waste Land: What the Thunder Said. Here we begin with the last days of Christ, the crucifixion, with the road to Emmaus which then passes into the apocalyptic, possibly end-of-war view of nations including Europe, and an extraordinary vision of a vampire-like horror amid bats with baby-faces (a scene I immediately recognised from the nightmares of my childhood), before heading for the final exhaustion in thunder, to Ganga, through the Upanishads, to evocations of the themes of earlier Eliot poems and passages, the desolation by the Thames and that welter of cries from Dante, the Hymn to Venus, Gerard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd and then that final childlike rocking to and fro – Shantih, shantih, shantih - by way of consolation or faint hope.

WHAT THE THUNDER SAID (I read this. but the link to the Poetry Archive gives you Eliot reading it himself)

For me, it is as if, like all great art, The Waste Land were taking place in a continuous present. Furthermore, in my own condition, that present was entirely enveloping, full of echoes that shook me without my knowing quite why they did so. Perhaps I recognised the revolutionary Budapest of 1956 with its bullet and shell scarred buildings in those falling towers; perhaps the woman who drew her long black hair out tight was an incarnation of my mother and her black hair as she turned away from me to brush it; perhaps the voices of Eliot and Vivienne in the room and those of the group down at the pub echoed some experience of hearing my own mother and father at a point of tension and the presence of overheard unfamiliar others engaged in their own lives in some social space.

Perhaps all this was personal, or some core of it was. I chose to concentrate on it here because of its significance to me then, But also because the world it conjured is never quite dead. Not even now.

Since we are at Little Gidding, a poem that harks back to themes in The Waste Land, I want to end with a few lines from Part I that seem appropriate to me in terms of the condition in which we find ourselves even on a day like this.

… There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city –
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.