Thoughts on a dead poet

Laurence Inman remembers how he first engaged with TS Eliot.

Valerie Eliot died on November 9th, aged 86.

She was the second wife of T S Eliot. She came from Leeds and, after hearing a reading of Journey of the Magi when she was still at school, decided that she would, one day, become the great man’s secretary. This she did, and went on to marry him in 1957, when he was 68 and she only 30. She gave him eight years of happiness before he died in 1965.

I can still remember the morning I heard of his death. It was announced in assembly, in front of the whole school, by the head of RE and History, Fred Fidgeon. He then read out part of the chorus from Murder in the Cathedral beginning ‘Does the bird sing in the south ?’

I recognised immediately something serious, compelling and beautiful in that apparently simple arrangement of familiar words.

A couple of years later, at another school, I picked up a copy of the Faber Selected Poems which was lying on the desk of my English teacher, Bernard Levitt. I read the opening lines of Prufrock; the measured, melancholy invitation and the startling simile of the evening sky and the etherised patient.

That moment was one that settled the course of my life, for the next few years at least.

On the following Saturday I went to Hudson’s bookshop. This was when the main part of it was on the corner of Stephenson Street and Ethel Street. I bought Four Quartets. That night I read it for the first time, an experience which remains in my memory as one of the key half-dozen sensory events of my life. (And I was a thoroughly outgoing, sociable youth.)

Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, made him miserable for years. But you can’t make great poetry out of a satisfied acceptance of life. And she wrote the bits of pub-dialogue in The Waste Land. So thank you, Viv, for that. And thank you, Val, for editing the big facsimile of the poem Tom called ‘a bit of rhythmical grousing,’ and for producing three volumes of his letters before you went.

In my room, on the wall just behind my desk, is a picture-frame holding this passage from a lecture Eliot delivered in 1933:

‘…..that at which I have long aimed, in writing poetry; to write poetry which should be essentially poetry, with nothing poetic about it, poetry standing naked in its bare bones, or poetry so transparent that we should not see the poetry, but that which we are meant to see through the poetry, poetry so transparent that in reading it we are intent on what the poem points at, and not on the poetry, this seems to me the thing to try for. To get beyond poetry, as Beethoven, in his later works, strove to get beyond music.