Talking about The Waste Land Revisited

On Monday 11th April the talk I never expected to give blossomed into an extraordinary collaborative performance in the Elwin Room in the BRLSI. Yes, that glamorous first floor room with the three painted roundels in the ceiling and Bath’s famous Queen Square just outside the windows. With singer guitarists MIRANDA PENDER and PETER REASON, and readers AMA BOLTON, ANN CULLIS, ANDREW LAWRENCE and CAROLINE FRANCES-KING.

Caught in behind the blinding lectern light and lectern microphone, unable to manage my ring-filed script among these impediments, or to stay in range of both the laptop and the microphone to create the proper relaxing triangle of speaker/slideshow/audience, I decided on the spur of the moment – because I really had no choice – to give my first ever unscripted talk. The Elwin Room technical facilities are excellent, of course. The bad planning and device management was all mine. It was only thanks to the readers, singers and excellent humour of the forty strong audience that this all worked out so well.

Our three singers on April 11th 2022

TS Eliot was huge fan of the London music hall and we visited several classic music hall songs during our zoom sessions. On Monday night, PETER REASON gave an excellent performance of Vera Lynn’s ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ as a lead in to MIRANDA PENDER’S own composition about Procne and Philomela, the tragic sisters in the myth about the creation of the nightingale. My talk was partly designed to unsettle the daunting image of TS Eliot as a poet so difficult that The Waste Land has nine pages of authorial notes. Not only did Eliot himself label these notes ‘bogus scholarship’, but he was also the wonderfully witty writer of the poems which inspired Cats. To celebrate this, ANDREW LAWRENCE gave us verses from ‘Memory’, the song that took Cats around the theatres of the world.

The songs were not the only highlights of the evening, of course. The readings were also delivered with great poise and flair. I had chosen some of them to startle as well as to entertain. ANN CULLIS stepped beautifully into Vivienne Ellis’s shoes in a letter to her mother-in-law about the problem of keeping TSE in vests. AMA BOLTON read us Eliot’s surprisingly affectionate and irreverent 1917 poem, ‘The Hippopotamus’. MIRANDA PENDER gave us the sad encounter between the typist and the house agent’s clerk – a reading illuminated in a very touching way by Eliot’s letter confiding anxiety about his sexual inexperience. ANDREW LAWRENCE read this.

The advertised subject of the talk, of course, was not only The Waste Land, but our collaborative piece, The Waste Land Revisited, which will be having its premier in Queen Square on 11th June. CAROLINE FRANCES-KING trailed this with a readings of one of the almanac pieces on the month of February, and a prose piece by JENNA PLEWES.

An hour is a very short time for such a richly illustrated talk. The sad casualty of the evening was our plan that the audience would join in the chorus verses of ‘Berkeley Square’ and ‘Memory’. The audience was more than willing but the clock ran out on us. This won’t happen on Saturday 11th June, when we have set aside enough time morning and afternoon for everyone to join in.

Feedbacks ….

Last night was just fabulous, so well constructed and delivered.We can discuss the future events later whenever you wish. Betty

I was engrossed by the whole event, the setting was beautiful in the BRLSI. The talk itself was a wonderful mixture of depth, contrasting facts, stark realities and well placed humour and fun. The audience seemed to be really pulled in by the content and the mixture of spoken and performed media, I felt, really kept things moving brilliantly with a really digestible flow. I am still feeling very inspired and also intrigued by the man himself and the cocktail of influences, places, dynamics and events that surrounded him as his writing gestated and birthed into form. Thank you so much for inviting me. James

I thought it was an extraordinary evening and I heard at least one person say that they wished they’d been part of the journey. Caroline

Well done everyone. That was quite an evening. Looking forward to our June performance. Peter

Monday evening was a real treat. For a start, a beautiful venue and a substantial and attentive audience. Sue’s slideshow/talk was intriguing and reassuring, a friendly invitation to dip an intrepid toe – or more – into the important but bewildering world of Eliot’s mould-breaking poem. There were plenty of surprises and revelations. For me, the highlight was Miranda’s reading of a short but devastating piece of prose by Jenna Plewes, followed by Miranda’s own song telling the story of Philomel in a less direct but more universal way. It was hauntingly beautiful. Now I am impatient to find out what other pleasures and surprises await us on June 11th. Ama

It was a lovely event and the narrative arc of the talk was fluid/fluent. Could tell that audience was engaged throughout, and responded to the lighter touches eg vests & pants. Def a good call not to include any present day refs to Ukraine; it would have risked sounding tokenistic and virtue signalling. And there’s nothing wrong in choosing to spend 90 mins in 1922 to have a respite from current affairs. Ann

One of the most rewarding aspects was to hear people’s contributions performed as part of a cohesive whole, rather than as random elements during our Zoom sessions. It really brought everything together, and bodes extremely well for June. It was also exciting to have a new audience. Most of our BRLSI performances to date have attracted the same band of faithful followers, and it’s encouraging to feel Bath Writers & Artists are reaching out to even more people. Miranda

My favourite slide.

Huge thanks to everyone, not just for your excellent accomplished performances, but for the way you came together ahead of the show to create this very successful evening almost out of thin air. (Rehearsal hadn’t been possible because until Monday evening we had been confined to zoom.)

Many thanks, too, to the BRLSI for inviting us into their sumptuous space, and giving us such a warm welcome and such a responsive audience. Our full day of Waste Land Revisited events is now only seven weeks away. MARK PENDER’S brilliant design for our poster, City of Paranoia, is below.

City of Paranoia: original painting by Mark Pender

The Waste Land Revisited

barleybooks

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 seven 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.Sue Boyle

As one of those twenty seven writers, I have been immersed in Eliot’s poem and in our responses to it for months. Much of my recent writing relates to it, directly or indirectly.

The calypso singers are still laughing but the fishermen have thrown down their flowers

And…

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Bath Writers and Artists (February 2022)

barleybooks

We had our first meeting outside Bath yesterday, in The Hive, a community centre in Peasdown St John. It was also, I think, our first day of concentrating more on art than writing. A joyful day of making art, individually and collaboratively, in response to Lubaina Himid’s current London exhibition and some of the searching questions she asks her audience.
What does love sound like?
What are monuments for?
How do you distinguish safety from danger?
We refrained from mentioning the news, but of course it was on our minds and emerged in our work.
With gentle direction and encouragement from Mo Kiziewicz, we drew on childhood memories while listening to music. Here are some of my doodles. On the left, John Cage, drawn with dominant hand. On the right, Bach, with non-dominant hand.

We discussed the questions, and then made collages to illustrate our responses. Here is mine: letters…

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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/

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