21 March 2009

How Eliot makes me a braver poet

Lately I’ve been making my way through T S Eliot’s Collected Poems re-reading my old fav The Waste Land and the wonderful but less-familiar ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. And I’ve been discovering some new treasures that I hadn’t read before (like ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’), and some I’d forgotten I’d read, but recognised again (such as ‘Hysteria’). There are some that I can take or leave, but, by and large, I’m loving them.

My reading of Eliot has been strangely patchy. Even though I’d get excited about what I have read, it never seemed to compel me to devour it all – until now.

The reason I jumped back into Eliot was because of Twitter. (See, it can have some usefulness – or so I’m telling myself.) I was looking for short lines of poetry for my #Poetry tweets. (For those of you unfamiliar with Twitter, tweets are kind of like mini blog posts – each can only be a maximum of 140 characters, including spaces.)

I’ve found this an interesting exercise so far – looking for two to three gorgeous lines of poetry that works well out of context, in isolation from the rest of its poem. Strong and interesting images seem to work well, or some kind of interesting or wise statement. It makes me really think about the meaning(s) of those two to three lines, which helps me appreciate the poem all the more.

‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is full of such lines, and ‘The Waste Land’ – to my surprise – less so. I think because ‘The Waste Land’ gains its power in longer portions, in repetition and in context.

Of ‘The Waste Land’ I twittered:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire”

And of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:
“And time yet for a hundred indecisions,/and for a hundred visions and revisions/Before the taking of a toast and tea”

“And indeed there will be time/To wonder, 'Do I dare?' and, 'Do I dare?'/ Time to turn back and descend the stair”

“I grow old ... I grow old .../I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
Reading Eliot again, particularly ‘The Waste Land’, has reminded me of how opaque his writing is, how he puts together a bunch of things that don’t make obvious sense together. It just isn’t that accessible. But who cares?! It’s wonderful!

The first time I read ‘The Waste Land’ I was sitting on my bed in my room at home. I was in my second year at university, and studying it for my course on modern poetry. I read it out loud, and was totally entranced by how it sounded, how it felt. I didn’t have a clue what it meant. Even now, after a thoroughly researched essay and many re-readings, I have only dim ideas what it’s about. But it doesn’t matter – I love it and have gotten a lot out of it.

Re-discovering it has been making me think about my own poetry. I write quite differently to Eliot. My poems – especially the ones in My Iron Spine – tend to be quite narrative. And while I like to think that I’ve put layers of meaning into them, I think they’re pretty accessible really.

But each time I’ve finished a collection of poetry – ok, so that’s only twice so far – I’ve wanted to shift into a different direction. I don’t want to keep writing exactly the same kind of poem until it becomes a parody of my own style. And I have been moving away from the narrative poems of My Iron Spine, but I’m a little nervous.

I’m drawn towards more imagistic, less straightforward style, and yet I’m afraid I could end up writing poems that no one will like because they can’t understand them.

But Eliot has reminded me that opaque and bad are not the same thing, and that poetry can be meaningful without obvious meaning.

I think I’ll be thinking and writing more about this…


Tim said...

The lines from Prufrock that have reverberated in my mind since I first read the poem (over 25 years ago) are:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

An image like that has the kind of depth you associate with Shakespeare.

Helen Rickerby said...

That's great isn't it! I think I'll twitter that as my next #Poetry tweet.

Maggie May said...

I have been off and on with Elliot as well, in and out, dipping through. Some poets are to be consumed and others to be dipped! I like your page, hello fellow poet :)

Helen Rickerby said...

Thanks very much Maggie.

harvey molloy said...

He's such a musical poet: he wrote songs, really. I sometimes say to Latika just before we go out in a whiny, nasally, high-pitched over the top northern brogue; "Let us go then you and I when the evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table! Get yer clogs on." (I hear you say 'but Molloy that's yr usual voice!')

Helen Rickerby said...

That's totally charming Harvey! I like the idea of introducing Eliot into everyday speech. Just this evening I managed to get 'April is the cruelest month' into conversation - though then had to explain it.

Anonymous said...

Your new direction sounds exciting! I've been enjoying your poetry tweets. Twitter really lends itself to that. Haiku too...

Tim Jones said...

I wonder what Eliot himself would have made of the conjunction of poetry and Twitter? It may have been a little too demotic for him.

I admire your fluidity with Twitter. I'm on there, but I don't really know why yet.

My favourite few lines of Eliot are the "Death by Water" section of "The Waste Land":

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers....

And so forth.