Friday, 23 October 2009

Season of Mists, Eliot, Pam Ayres and Question Time.

I was surprised when T S Eliot was voted as the best loved Poet of all time in the Latest BBC survey. Had the T. S. Eliot Society been block voting, cornering people in the streets, canvassing at poetry readings, doing deals with the supporters of Keats and Coleridge in smoke filled back-rooms like some sleazy Republican Convention in Chicago? However in another way I am not surprised because Eliot for all his tortured emotions and poetic craft was an emigrant, an American who found the old world fitted his temperament more than the new and converts are often more deeply embedded in that which they embrace than those born to it. I have written about Eliot before dear reader I know but surely he and I can withstand another look.

I watched the odious BNP man on Question Time last night and concluded here was a man not of intelligence but of deep cunning mixed with not a little fantasy. Indigenous people of England, for god’s (Christian, Muslim and any other religion or secular way of being that hold to gods of true justice and compassion) sake is the man not aware that all men are mongrels. All of us have DNA coursing in our veins that stem from the four corners of the world; we are all passing migrants in a way on a planet that is so small it will soon burst at the seams. Mr BNP seemed like a huge antediluvian dinosaur peeing in the corners of his territory as if that act itself would keep away those that would take his land and his right to roam it as he sees fit.

So why did this man drive me to read Eliot’s Four Quartets again and in particular Little Gidding; because here is a poem written by an immigrant writing about a place that spoke to him and yet transcended all sense of place and looked to something more important beyond the greater importance of which particular piece of earth our first footsteps trod.

Little Gidding is just a short drive from where I live, I have eaten my lunch in the graveyard there when passing. It is at the end of a tiny single track road that ends with the house and this tiny church. The lovely people that live in the religious community there, who often come from all over the world to stay there bring you tea and homemade cake and ask for no money other than a donation. I can see what Eliot may have felt here because it is also a place where you can go no further so have to turn back on yourself. I go there and find it has a sort of quiet steadfastness (an old fashioned word I know) yet at the same time the people there, some from war torn or chaotic places in the world, bring to it a sense of it being the beginning of something for they usual come not to hide from but to gain strength to run back towards the outside world which they will soon have to cope with and try and change for the better. I am neither a Christian or particularly religious but I do, I hope, understand spirituality, hope and a striving for good in the world. Most religions have been and continue to be the cause of great suffering but that’s like a Martian looking down and thinking Mr BNP, his views and actions, represents everyone in Britain.

Little Gidding in a wonderful place to go to in the autumn as the foliage on the trees is now reaching that critical point of turning to fallen. There is that point when they give off that last fire before they drop. Nothing like the glories of New England of course but still just enough glory to fill a tea cup and that can be enough for anyone. In his poem about Little Gidding Eliot talks a lot about fire and I tend to think he may have those autumn fire colours in mind and not just the metaphor of fire in Christianity and I think he also speaks to earthly love and suffering of all kinds.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

It is strange that Eliot, a complex man not without his fair share of unfathomable blindspots and unkindnesses, not least of which was the ease with which he embraced the Anti-Semitic language current in his day, should write something which I personally find so full of thoughts that not only attempt to understand human emotional suffering in some ways but also to give a kind of solace within that suffering. Thousands of people have read the last stanza of this Quartet to breathe in some sense of peace or at least a measure of hope from it. I think it may be one of those times when the poem is greater than the sum parts of the poet. I have often heard poets speak about the demands a poem makes of them; that in some way it has its own sense of what it is or could be which we ignore at our peril. The old tale that Michelangelo, looking at a block of Carrere marble, spoke of merely releasing the statue already formed from within the stone, is often also related to the poet and the poem being released from a block of words. Perhaps Eliot’s Four Quartets is one of those experiences; writing out of our skin or beyond ourselves is perhaps only an experience the greatest of poets have but I am sure we have all sometimes wondered at the weird way with which a poem can sometimes insist on being other than what you first intended it to be. Judge for yourselves about that last stanza of Little Gidding.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

I apologise dear reader if I have rambled on but the strange conjunction of stars which provide Eliot as the nation’s favourite poet, Mr BNP on Question Time, autumn, the turning of life and seasons and the smell of burning leaves coming from the garden three doors up as I write have put me in this place. Next blog I will try and discuss the phenomenon which is Pam Ayres, which is not a joke, I truly believe the woman is rejected and despised as a vernacular poet by some of the literary glitterati because she packs out venues and is never up her own arse about the importance or historic legacy of her work and is unafraid of rhyming little with peanut brittle.

PS. The Boo has just bought a brand new motor bike (a Suzuki Van Van…what company calls a bike a Van Van!). All positive vibrations for her continued well being and the wish that she does not end up as a smear on the roads of County Durham gratefully received. But, hurrah, as she points out, this one has an electronic ignition not a kick start so things are now retro styled but not retro labour intensive.

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