Weekends with TS Eliot


Reading TS Eliot's Selected poems (Image: Courtesy RubyGoes via Flickr, using CC-BY 2.0)

Breakfast in bed is my weekend treat. It’s when I kick back with a book and simply relax – except this weekend and last I kicked back instead with my iPad and app for TS Eliot‘s The waste land. What fun I am having and intend to have over a few more weekends.

So, what have I been doing?

Fiona Shaw’s performance

Well, last weekend I pottered around the app checking out what’s there and how to navigate it, trying a couple of the readings (but not listening to the whole), and so on. And then I listened to/watched Fiona Shaw‘s performance of the poem. This is a performance rather than a reading. She uses gesture and limited movement (around the upper storey room in a house in Dublin somewhere) to convey the drama, humour and mystery of this rather tricky poem. If you hold the iPad in landscape orientation, Fiona Shaw’s performance fills the screen. However, if you rotate it to portrait orientation, the poem appears below the image with the text synchronised to the performance. This is what I did and, being a textual person, I preferred it this way. I loved seeing the words played out on the screen – and she was almost word-perfect.  I didn’t time it properly but it took, I’d say, 15-20 mins. I’d recommend this as a good way to start re-acquainting yourself with the poem if, like me, it’s been an embarrassing number of decades since you last read it.

Perspectives, from Seamus Heaney, Paul Keegan, Jim McCue and Craig Raine

I said above that I am a textual person and that’s true but, paradoxically I suppose, the thing that most grabs when I’m reading is rhythm and sound (something I’m loving in my current read, Kim Scott‘s That deadman dance, but that’s for later). And so, I have always loved TS Eliot:

In the room women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo
(from ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots.
(from “Preludes”)

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
This is the dead land
This is the cactus land
(from, of course, “The hollow men”)

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
(from “W. What the thunder said” in The waste land)

…  and so on. Staccato or sing-song, repetition or not, rhyming or not. It gets into your bones.

This weekend I decided to explore the Perspectives section of the app which is where various luminaries talk about aspects of Eliot and the poem. I listened to/watched Irish poet Seamus Heaney, poetry editor from Faber and Faber Paul Keegan, Eliot expert Jim McCue, and English poet and academic Craig Raine …. and I gained some new perspectives! I’m not going to comment on all they say since you really should explore this app yourself (if, that is, you have access to an iPad). I’ll just focus on an aspect that most comment on, one way or another – Eliot and sound.

Heaney comments on the “musicality” of the poem. Paul Keegan goes a little further. He suggests that
“acoustic things, tonalities” are what attracts people more, today, to the poem than the “monolithic meanings”. These “acoustic things” though do convey meaning, don’t they, particularly when the allusions elude us. I do not, I admit, “get” all the allusions, but I love the sound of the poem and can sense his concerns even if I may not be able to articulate them in an analytical way.

Somewhat related to this, Keegan argues that Eliot showed it was possible for a poet to write without knowing exactly what larger meanings he was conveying. He suggests that Eliot didn’t necessarily know what he was getting off his chest and that he was more interested in “what poems do than in what they say”. This rather ties back to sound doesn’t it? Or, it does for me. What his poems “do” to me is complex – they move me emotionally but can often mystify me intellectually. They can sound at times like nonsense and yet you “feel” or “hear” something profound. How does he do that? Anyhow, Keegan expands his point, suggesting that Eliot’s poetry encouraged a new fearlessness about poetry “having to make sense, forensic sense”. It freed up, he says, some of those questions*.

Jim McCue’s contribution is a short but interesting one on the history of the poem’s publication. And then, Craig Raine takes up the sound issue again, but from a slightly different perspective. He describes Eliot, the American born English poet, as, really, a world citizen. The waste land is full of “voices” – something conveyed well by Shaw in her performance – from around the world including, most obviously, Germany, France and India. It’s like, Raine says, changing the radio dial (which was still a fairly new technology then.) He also describes the poem as “a fantastic operatic selection”, a not surprising description, I suppose, for a poem which Eliot considered titling “He do the police in different voices”!**

A technical (sort of) note

The app doesn’t always behave exactly as I would expect or like. Changing the orientation will sometimes bring a surprising result and take you away from where you were. It’s not hard to get back as there’s always the Home icon available at the bottom, but it can be disconcerting.

* I will though come back to meaning in my next post after I’ve finished the “Perspectives” section of this App.
** From Dickens’ Our mutual friend

15 thoughts on “Weekends with TS Eliot

  1. I love how this poem, and other evocative onees like it, can envelop you and make the minutes disappear as you read/watch. For some reason, The Wasteland has always reminded me slightly of Under Milk Wood (or the other way around). I don’t know if they’re actually similar, or the way they make me feel is similar.

  2. Hmm, I may need to kidnap The Spouse’s iPad at some stage so that I can check this out.
    Wouldn’t it be lovely if they did the same for other great poems like The Faerie Queene and (my fave) Paradise Lost!

  3. It would absolutely… There’s a similar sounding iPad app for Kerouac’s On the road. BUT doing a novel this way is a different experience to a poem. I’d love to see more poems done this way. Paradise lost, as you say, would be a good one. It’s a fairly hungry program at over 900mb.

  4. I love Fiona Shaw – I saw her in a couple of things while living in London and heard her on the radio the other day, talking about Irish as opposed to English approaches to language. I shall go and find her doing this on the internet. Thanks for alerting me to her performance.

    • You know I’d never heard of her … though my daughter tells me she was in the Harry Potter movies. Her performance is great … and she does one of the perspectives I’ve yet to watch/listen to. Jeanette Winterson does another one. It’s all very delicious. I do hope you find her performance online somewhere.

      • Oh dear, now I’ve tracked down her reading and, much as I love her, I’m not that thrilled – I saw her in Happy Days by Samuel Beckett and she was brilliant as Winnie, but she seems to have decided to read the Waste Land in the same persona and it sounds a bit shallow, to my ears (if something can sound shallow).

        • It is somewhat dramatic versus the other readings … I was a little thrown at first but decided to go with the flow. I didn’t love it, but I did find it an interesting way to get back into the poem. The other readings – though I’ve not yet listened to them all in full – do it more as a straight poetry reading.

    • Ah, why is that Guy – the steering clear? I tend to look for it. I see poetry as have a close relationship to music (as I wrote in a recent Monday musings) and therefore think it’s as much an oral/aural as a textual/written medium. The reader has to be good though.

      Yes, I love Prufrock too … perhaps partly because it was my first serious Eliot but also because it’s simply a great poem. I have measured out my life in coffee spoons … hmmm

  5. What fun you are having with this app! It sounds really fantastic. I know what you mean about the sound. It is really marvelous. My husband has been listening to Eliot read his poems in the car repeatedly for the last few weeks. He loves them even when he has no idea what they mean. I think he is loving the sound of them. He likes the lines from The Waste Land, “summer surprised us” and “winter kept us warm” and keeps trying to find opportunities to work them in to conversation. Between the two of you I’ll probably be compelled to read Eliot before the summer is out.

  6. Yes, Stefanie … get with the strength! Eliot is beautifully quotable, and I agree that when you hear it you can take on the sense/feeling even when the specfic words don’t make complete sense. I’m sure that’s to do with the musicality of poetry.

  7. Pingback: TS Eliot’s “Choruses from the Rock” « Anchor for the Soul

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