A richness of good writing

& a painful challenge for poetry

Two Waste Land Revisited milestones already this week. Our June 11th Performance Day script reached its first full draft and is out with its four patient page editors. ( Ama Bolton, Ann Cullis, Marilyn Francis and Ann Preston. ) And on Monday afternoon, the first Waste Land showcase concert allowed us to admire some of the remarkable new work which has sprung from the series of zoom workshops in the autumn of 2021.

Too soon to divulge the secrets of the script which will undoubtedly shape-shift many times before we print it up for June. But this is an excellent moment to list some of the pieces which held us spellbound yesterday.

TS Eliot’s classicism featured strongly, with a rivetting retelling of the myths of Procne and Philomela from Jenna Plewes and of the death of Actaeon from Verona Bass. The sybil in The Waste Land epigraph caught Cathy Nicholls’ imagination, not just in her own right but in her later manifestation as Madama Sosostris who is now busy worming her dark way into all our hearts. The concert was much livened by professional speaker Sally Sedgman who has joined our project as a reader, both for the zoom showcase concerts and for Performance Day in June.

The afternoon was a chance to introduce the themes and sequence of the performance script and readers were able to locate their pieces appropriately as we made our journey down the river, through time and into a near-apocalyptic dark. Graeme Ryan gave us two powerfully imagined recently published narrative poems with River Thames associations . ‘The Charm of London Town’ sequence made a platform for excellent memoir pieces by Jenna Plewes and Verona Bass while Ama Bolton presented a monologue by murderer Kitty Byron, a voice from one of ‘The Dark Places of the Earth’ .

The small scale concert left time for discussion, not only of the readings themselves, but of some of the issues arising from them. In particular, we were engaged with the challenges presented by Cathy Nicholls’ snapshot imaginings of TS Eliot as a sexual voyeur which in turn lead into questions of some of the real challenges we will have to face soon if we continue delving into this utterly remarkable master of twentieth century English language poetry. Eliot’s undisputed anti-semitism for a start.

Last night Russians tanks moved into Donetsk and Lugansk . We do not know whether dark times may be coming in which the bleak landscape of Eliot’s The Waste Land will seem even more relevant than it seemed in 1922.

What is certain is that the kinds of ignorance and intolerance Auden writes about in his great elegy In Memory of WB Yeats ( below) are poisoning our civilisation today, just as they poisoned it in 1939. People will die – or perhaps are already dying – in Russia and the Ukraine, for the same kind of politics that Eliot and Yeats failed to call out. Or to call out loudly or soon enough. And yet, as Graeme Ryan reminded us yesterday, Eliot’s The Four Quartets, written not many years later this anti-semitic poet, is for many poets almost a sacred text.

There will be a lot to discuss in the autumn when Peter Reason will be convening a debate on the relevance of literature and the arts to global catastrophe. We may be wondering how to justify studying poetry if tanks are moving across central Europe as they did in the dark days of the middle twentieth century. Auden’s lines on Yeats are no answer to these hard questions, but he does seem to suggest that we can hope somehow to arrive through poetry at a place of healing.

In the deserts of the heart 
Let the healing fountains start, 
In the prison of his days 
Teach the free man how to praise.

 Can we feel comfortable with this neatly rhymed idea? Or do we feel that Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff's poem To TS Eliot   deserves the last word?  Litvinoff read this in TS Eliot's presence at a literary meeting chaired by Sir Herbert Read in the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 195I.  Here are its last lines. It deserves a whole post of its own.

 Let your words  tread lightly 
on this earth of Europe
 lest my people’s bones protest.

lines from ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives,
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate.
Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountains start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

Miranda and Mark Pender at Bath Art Fair

It will be no surprise to people involved in The Waste Land Revisited project that many of their fellow contributors are multi-talented. Miranda and Mark Pender have both written very striking prose pieces for our Waste Land Almanac ( more about that later ). Mark is allowing us to use his brilliantly apposite painting ‘City of Paranoia’ as lead image and programme cover for our June Performance Day while Miranda is working on a suite of Waste Land songs, the first of which will premier in Bath Royal on Monday 11th April. And here they are, in their proper colours as full-blown artists, exhibiting for the first time at this year’s Bath Art Fair.

The show, which is held at the Pavilion in North Parade Road BA2 4EU, is open 10 am – 6 pm on Saturday 26 and 10 am – 5 pm on Sunday 27 February. It’s a splendid event, with nearly 90 contemporary artists from all over the UK displaying their work.

Miranda (stand 79)

is launching her new collection of stylised land- and seascapes. These include:

‘Durdle Door’, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 40 cm

‘Along the Sandford Orcas Road’, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 40 cm

‘Kimmeridge Bay’, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 50 cm

Mark (stand 80)

Mark has developed a specialisation in what might be called “fantasy art”; works inspired by myth, legend or similar, often with a darkly humorous touch. During lockdown he amused himself by painting versions of famous masters but incorporating either a “goth” element or his favourite model, Daisy the cow.

‘Lady With a Badger’, oil on canvas (and a lovely frame), 50 x 60 cm

‘Three Gold Coins, oil on canvas (also nicely framed), 42 x 60 cm

A limited number of tickets will be available on the door at £7, but if you buy them in advance through the Art Fair website, you can get a half-price discount code: https://www.bathartfair.co.uk/tickets/

Tradition and the Individual Talent

Every goose is a swan to its publisher until he fails to shift it through the till.

But how to identify the swans? Eliot’s 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ is one of the keys to understanding The Waste Land. He saw the cultural tradition as an assembly of great artefacts which have survived through time, shaping and informing the world which is fortunate to inherit them and being subtly changed in the understanding of later generations by the new art inspired by them and following in their wake.

I have been arguing today with a scholarly friend who thinks Jessie L. Weston deserves a place in my poster collage of writers whose presence haunts The Waste Land. This made me realise that I had instinctively homed in on writers whose influence on Eliot’s poem stemmed from their stature within the same culture he himself celebrated in his work. There is a self-fulfilling circularity in my poster and my Devon friend was right to challenge it.

But Jessie L. Weston? Best known today only for her citation in the notes to The Waste Land? About whose 1920 book Eliot later said that he regretted sending so many readers on ‘a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail?’ I still think not.

This is what Eliot himself said about the citation of From Ritual to Romance in the Waste Land notes:

‘The notes to The Waste Land! I had at first intended only to put down all the references for my quotations, with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism. Then, when it came to print The Waste Land as a little book – for the poem on its first appearance in The Dial and in The Criterion had no notes whatever – it was discovered that the poem was inconveniently short, so I set to work to expand the notes, in order to provide a few more pages of printed matter, with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view today.’

The Sewanee Review, Vol. 64, No. 4(Oct.-Dec. 1956)

There is another question of course: How to deal with the way once well-known writers and artists in Eliot’s pantheon have now paled into obscurity for many people who can still read his own poetry with joy. There are writers in my collage many of us may not recognise, and some whose names ring as faintly as Jessie L. Weston’s would if we did not have The Waste Land notes.

This was one of the many challenges that inspired our zoom group’s utterly unpredictable and sometimes irreverent journey towards The Waste Land Revisited. It will explain among other things the delightful appearances of Noel Coward and Marie Lloyd.

Hovering in the wings of Eliot’s Waste Land….

Celebrating the centenary of a masterpiece

Going into the New Year and already we have a rich calendar of events as we prepare for our performance day in June. Page editors will be meeting soon to sharpen up the collaborative compilation we have called ‘The River’s Tent is Broken’. I have a meeting next week with JUDE WISDOM, our melodious and multi-talented surrogate Marie Lloyd. Zoom concerts are being arranged in February and March for workshop participants to showcase the many excellent writings that were inspired by the Waste Land project. The invitation to talk about our project at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution ( now called Bath Royal ) has been confirmed for Monday 11th April. And the year has only just begun.

How differently we might respond to TS Eliot’s groundbreaking poem if he had stayed with his first title, ‘He do the police in different voices.’ And how different our experience would have been if Ezra Pound hadn’t encouraged Eliot to thin the first draft by almost half. Twenty five writers have been meeting regularly on zoom to unravel Eliot’s notoriously ‘difficult’ poem and prepare a day of readings and discussion for the centenary of its publication in 1922. Sue Boyle traces their challenging journey and talks about the exciting multi-media performance piece which has evolved from their collaborative work.

Many thanks and warmest New Year greetings to everyone involved in this project – and a warm welcome to anyone reading this who would like to come on board.

The Waste Land Revisited

2022 will be the centenary of the publication of one of the most intriguing English language poems of the twentieth century, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, with its haunting lines and phrases, its spellbinding images, its unanswered questions, its profound challenges and its abiding mystery.

TS Eliot

Twenty two West Country poets, prose writers, artists, photographers, singers, composers from many different parts of Devon and Somerset – some of us who have never actually met in the real world – have been reading and discussing The Waste Land on zoom since last September. We have also been writing new pieces inspired by our zoom meetings. Soon we will be collating and editing these for a June 2022 performance and planning how to enrich our production with songs and slides.

Each fortnightly meeting has sprung a new surprise.

Ezra Pound

Devon writer Cathy Nicholls has given us a Walt Whitman to join TS Eliot on his London walks. As Tom and Walt chatter, argue and declaim their way along the Thames, uninvited voices interrupt, insisting on their own perspectives, their own reality. Ezra Pound, of course, is watching critically from the wings.

As well as singing one of her best loved songs, Marie Lloyd regales us with a poignant description of TS Eliot’s visit to her music hall dressing room. (Bath artist Jude Wisdom sings Marie while Ashburton poet Susan Jordan provides her dramatic monologue.) Elizabeth Siddall tells us what it was like to pose in cold water for Millais’ painting of Ophelia. One of the Ripper’s victims calls from the dark for her story to be heard. We have also been giving voice to some of the literary and mythological heroines who pass all too briefly through Eliot’s mesmerising lines.

Between them, the cast knows London just as well as – if not better than – the three American blow-ins and has been creating its own idiosyncratic London Almanac which we intend to publish as an anthology later in the year.

The Waste Land Revisited project is now attracting attention from other writers, artists and photographers who would like share its journey towards the June 2022 performance day.

Please follow this blog and fill in the contacts page if you would like to come on board.