Friday, June 12, 2009

Old books, new pleasures

Watching the BBC Arena programme on Eliot the other night made me go back and read his poems - mainly 'Four Quartets', and 'Ash Wednesday', since it figured so prominently in the programme (partly, no doubt, because it offers such a useful way of talking about his religious conversion). Eliot's so thoroughly canonical now – part of the terrain – that it's easy to forget about him; but rereading his later work I was not only reminded how good it is, but also how musical, and how strange – unashamedly religious, direct poetry. The fourth section of 'Ash Wednesday' moves between image and portentous maxim with, well, a religious confidence and majesty and cadence (confidence in spite of the doubt that motivates and moves in Eliot's work):

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and in knowledge of eternal dolour

Of course there are things to criticise here, but mainly because Eliot's canonical status makes us querulous. The repetition of a line or phrase is used throughout the poem, and is familiar from 'The Waste Land' and elsewhere; but that's because Eliot made it famous. And the boldness of the images and symbols ('Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour') may seem reductive, in the same way that critics have considered the rhetoric of Ted Hughes' Crow reductive. But the complaint against Crow is bound up in its myth-making religiosity; and since Eliot's poem is explicitly religious, I'm not sure it's quite to the point to criticise it on this score. It varies from the school of the precise, nuanced image, but here Eliot is specifically looking for something vague, blank and, as a result, unearthly.

And the poem isn't without precise images. In the previous section Eliot writes of 'a slotted window bellied like the fig's fruit'. That really struck me, because I've been wanting to use the image of an oriel window for a while now, and couldn't find a way to make it work. Then Eliot comes along and shows me: it's simple, back-to-basics stuff – just find a wonderful image...

I also picked up from my bookshelves my copy of Ken Smith's Wild Root, which I can't quite remember acquiring and certainly have never read much of before. More fool me. It's great. I'm still discovering the work, but one thing that strikes me is that one thing Smith shares with Eliot's later work is a willingness to be simple and direct. See how, in the first poem in the book, the lineation works with the syntax to make simple sentences beautiful:

The other hald of the conversation
has flown off in a jetplane
to the country of her own tongue.

And maybe she'll come back to me
or maybe not or maybe she was all a dream
I had in the blue garden in the dusk.

As I say, I'm still finding my feet in the book, but already I've spied some ghost poems that tickle my fancy, and a poem on hats dedicated to John Hartley Williams – and that's got me thinking of his work, for instance the famous, wonderful 'Lament for the Subotica-Palic Tramway'. Good old books!


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