& 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.