November 24, 2004


It occurred to me that the passage in Burnt Norton:

Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.

is reminiscent of another passage of Eliot's. Conceivably his most famous, the lines that begin The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table

He is restless, Eliot. He needs to be on the move, he needs to be on the move in order to think. His poetry seems to me to be about there being something not quite right, - something he cannot pin down, but if he gets to walking, if he half leaves it alone, half keeps working at it, perhaps he can work out what it is that is bothering him.

It was bothering me on Saturday. I had an earworm of Prufrock when I was playing chess, by way of a change from the music, of one kind or another, that usually runs through my head while I am trying to concentrate on the game. I can see why. The passage has a rhythmical feel, like a piece of music which, after a brief introduction, discovers its tempo and begins to accelerate.

I suppose the example that comes easiest to mind is the overture from Le Nozze Di Figaro - a phrase to announce itself, and then it begins to move. Prufrock has its opening statement, the let us go then you and I, and then it picks up pace. It moves off like a motor car:

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

and then it comes suddenly to a halt. As if Eliot himself had set off and looked round to discover his listener still motionless at the kerb:

To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

I love that. I love that sudden arrest, that "come on!" to his reader.

I would love to hear the poem spoken. Spoken, not declaimed, as poetry, like theatre, usually is. (I can only go to the theatre about once a year because it annoys me so much to hear the way young actors speak.) It's necessary. I never understood Allen Ginsberg until I heard his poetry read out - first, Howl, read by the late Dave Widgery at a teach-in twenty years ago, and the more recently, film of Ginsberg himself reading from Kaddish. I cannot read his poem America, my single favourite poem, without hearing it read, with all the changes in voice and tone, from pleading to anger to weary resignation:
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set
that one would imagine from a theatrical soliloquy. But a soliloquy addressed to one person, a soliloquy spoken with just one particular person in mind.

Because that is its tone - a tone composed of many tones - America never settles. It, too, is a restless poem. And I see, although I had forgotten until now, that that very word, restless, is used at the beginning of Prufrock:
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
He is restless, Eliot. Restless because seeking rest. Seeking resolution. Something is not quite right, and he is seeking rest and resolution that he will never find.


Post a Comment

<< Home