I once had the pleasure of having a poem I had written directed, and recorded by, the brilliant director-actor Fiona Shaw. Or rather, it was a treat but also a shocker. For Ms Shaw spent an hour trying to wrest a performance from my reading of my own work to get to the heart of the matter - a kernel of truth she sensed I could not quite hit with my voice, my vocal performance. Finally, in something akin to desperation, she admitted that actors, for her, were far better readers of poems than the poets themselves. In fact, she confided, if actors did poetry readings more often, people might actually enjoy poetry.
Such a viewpoint is partly behind today's event in British radio broadcasting - a New Year's Day special seeing Jeremy Irons (that immortal ham, best-beloved for Brideshead Revisited and Die Hard 4 or whatever) - reading ALL OF TS ELIOT'S POETRY (!) over the course of the day, on BBC Radio 4 - directed by, you guessed it, Fiona Shaw. Meanwhile, it must be said that the main broadcasting event of today, for most people in Britain or beyond, will be the new Sherlock episode tonight, 8.30 pm, GMT.
I am not anti-Eliot. Far from from it. He would be on my top ten list of poets who have influenced my own sense of what poetry is and can be; I recently wrote a chapter on his influence for a Palgrave primer; I think his 'Prufrock' the great short poem of the 20th century. I even think every thinking person should know his work.
That being said, Eliot is a bizarre, unimaginative, tone-deaf and retrograde choice for such an all-day broadcast event, for 2017.
Now, I realise centenaries of modernist accomplishments are heaving into view. I also know that a sort of frozen sense of the canon - antithetical to Eliot's own view - has paradoxically established Eliot, in some British circles, as the last poet to be universally considered "great". Other moderns sanctioned by the BBC establishment as truly major would be, of course, Larkin, Hughes, Heaney, Auden and Plath. And few others.
Things move slowly in UK tradionalist circles - the bestowing of honours is still a huge event several times a year - as if we needed the Queen to tell us Ray Davies is a great songwriter - but even still, given the year of Farage/Trump we have just seen - an angry year of xenophobia, anti-multicultural popular uprisings of contempt, the year of Black Lives Matter - Eliot is a terrible choice.
Firstly, the bigger story of poetry in 2016, is that poetry HAS moved on from 100 or 80 or 50 years ago. The BBC could have had a whole day of new poems being read. Or recent classics. They might have read ALL the poems of Denise Riley. They might have wanted to look into the extraordinary rise of poets of colour, poets speaking out across the UK and the world with new accents, visions, and ways of speaking. If that is too "PC" for you, well then, I am sorry for you. But this was the time of Lemonade.
I am sure Shaw would explain that Eliot has a lot to say about hollow men, the death of society, loss of purpose - an ennui or anomie that may be seen as endemic now in certain circles - but that is half the story. Eliot was an enemy of multiculturalism (though a fan of right-wing France), who though England had too many Jews floating around in it (his words not mine) - the England he wanted would have been royalist and very Christian.
He would have not wanted many if any Muslim refugees coming in. Eliot was not, as is often thought, a cosmopolitan man open to all times and places - he was a magpie and a bit of a charlatan (all great poets are) - and his genius has been exaggerated by people who forget that The Waste Land was a provocation dreamt up by Ezra Pound, a violent edit-job to a very different text. Eliot's casual racism and sexism infected his texts as much as Wagner's influenced his operas. We still perform Wagner, and can enjoy him, just as I still love The Four Quartets - but we must inoculate ourselves against much of the vile thinking behind the words, in order to do so.
More worryingly, however, is the false bias against poets reading their own work, perpetuated by theatrical luvvies who over-value their own inflections. I have never heard an actor not murder a poem, in a cathedral or elsewhere.
Actors over-compensate, and dramatise poems - poems are not meant to be dramatic - that is dramatic verse, or a play. The voice of the poem is its own self-controlled, self-offering form, diction, music - the poem already is the performance of itself. I do not think poems are machines etc. - but they are definitely not things needing improvement with the mellifluous tones of an act-tor.
It is true poets often seem to read their own poems badly - William Carlos Williams is a case in point - but frankly, the very idea of reading poems out loud is secondary to what a poem is, anyway - most poems are written to be read by an inner ear or eye or spirit. Silently. On a peak in Darien or in your chair. New performance poetries are emerging to valuably challenge the silent rule I cite, and that is to the good. But despite Eliot's reading of his own work at small parties, his work, for all it's religiose rhetoric, is best read on the page - or read without an over-elaboration.
Now I agree that The Waste Land benefits, perhaps, from various voices being "done" - and Shaw has done that masterfully. No one would want less poetry on the radio; and I suppose there is an argument for getting the youth into poems via ageing movie stars. So why begrudge this event? I should be glad for a chance to hear, yet again, timeless great poems...
I just think Eliot is not the poet the UK needs in 2017 - unless Brexit means Beidecker.
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