Sunday 11 October 2009

Loving Poetry

I was surprised and delighted to discover that T. S Eliot had been voted that nation’s favourite poet in recent a BBC poll: surprised because his poetry can be quite demanding; delighted because he happens to be high on the list of my favourite poets. Indeed, he only just beat John Donne, who is my favourite. The other poets in the top ten included Benjamin Zephaniah, Wilfred Owen, Philip Larkin, William Blake, W. B. Yeats, John Betjeman, John Keats and Dylan Thomas. The poll itself comes in the wake of the BBC’s poetry season, of which I watched just about every instilment. It was thanks to this that I began to read and appreciate Larkin properly; thanks to this that I discovered High Windows in all of its simple and magical intensity.

I am, however, under no misaprehension about this kind of thing. Those who took part are most likely a small and very selective group of people, not really representative of the ‘nation’. Indeed, I seem to remember that If was selected not so long ago as the nation’s favourite poem, though Kipling does not even feature in the BBC poll. So, meaningless it may be, but I’m still delighted if more people, no matter how small a sample, appreciate the unsettling beauty of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.


  1. I love Eliot for his notion of the life not lived. The dead life. His widow is finally about to release the long-anticipated second volume of his letters.

  2. The life not lived; can there more alarming?

  3. The BBC's Poetry Season was really awesome. Some of it were repeats I had seen before but the ones on Milton and 'Simon Schama on John Donne' (title perhaps a deliberate pun on Donne's own 'John Donne / Ann Donne / Un-Done') and others, were really awesome. They ought to produce more stuff like it.

    Betjeman as a child gave Eliot (his schoolmaster in Highgate) a copy of his poems - He calls him 'That dear, good man with Prufrock in his head / And Sweeney waiting to be agonized' in his autobiographical poem Summoned by Bells.

    Yes, Eliot has a notion (a governing theme in his poetry, his Perpetuum Mobile if you like) of the Buried Life, the Failure to Live. He is too often portrayed as (and did he relish it) a constricted and monotonous man dressed to the nines but consider this

    Virginia Woolf writes of Eliot 'in his four piece suit' - repressed, reserved, buttoned-up. If we concentrate too much on the Lloyds banker in his pin-striped trousers, the London publisher with his bowler hat and rolled up umbrella, and Eliot's own ironic self-portrait as the circumspect pedant - 'Restricted to What Precisely / And If and Perhaps and But' - we are likely to overlook the man whose religious conversion first announced itself in the Vatican when Eliot fell to his knees in front of Michelangela's pietĂ  to the amazement of his brother Henry Ware Eliot. EliotThis is Robert Lowell describing Eliot dancing with Valerie, his new bride and second wife, forty years younger than himself, and married in secret at the age of sixty-nine: 'they danced so dashingly at the Charles River Boatclub brawl that he was called "Elbows Eliot".'

    (Craige Raine. T. S. Eliot. Oxford University press, 2006. xiv).

    By the way there is an exhibition on Eliot as publisher at Faber's on right now at the British Library worth checking out.

  4. Ya, I really loved it, Rehan. Thank you for that information. I'm coming down at the weekend, so I'll check it out if I get time.