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Friday 22 June 2007

Only God and Eliot

An anecdote featuring Seamus Heaney sparked a lengthy train of thought and recall in me recently. It was a retelling by Martha Kapos in the summer edition of Poetry London of Heaney's own account in "Finders Keepers". Seamus Heaney, the story goes, received a copy of T.S. Eliot's "Collected" as a lad away at boarding school. It was "wrapped like a food parcel". This was in the fifties, at a time when Elliot was the main man, the guiding light of poetry, so you might think he (Heaney) would have regarded it as manna from heaven, seen the poems as a revelation even. Not so: they made him ill. He suffered something akin to a panic attack, complete with all the psycho-somatic symptoms that are the well-known associates of such attacks. The cause: he simply could not understand the poems, make any sense of Eliot's words. He prayed (in some sort of way) for a "paraphrasable meaning" to come to him, but none did. Repeated re-readings took him no further: the lines would not release their secrets.

Pausing there for a moment, I find the story reassuring on at least two counts. Initially, because if Heaney could make no sense of Eliot's lines, then there is no need for us to feel inadequate, hopeless or inferior (except perhaps by Heaney's standards) when we fail to unravel some obscurity or fail to find "the paraphrasable meaning" of something by Eliot, Pound, Stevens et al. Reassuring also, because the implication is that the quest for such a meaning is a search for the non-existent. I remember fondly when that thought, or something very like it, first occurred to me, what a difference it made to me, and has done ever since. But if I recall fondly, it is not with any great clarity, alas. I do remember that I was reading a book (or essay) on the writings and association of Pound and Fenellosa. In it there was an image of the poet as one fishing in troubled waters. Reading the editorial by Kapos has brought it all back: my thoughts and my excitement at the time. She quotes Stevens's remark that "A poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully." Obscurity in poetry, she points out, is not an encounter with a stretch of muddy water which repeated (and, no doubt, intelligent) reading will make transparent. No, my own analogy would be with the white water thrown up by the words thrashing about below the surface as the poet stretches their natural meaning to take the language beyond itself in order to express the inexpressible. The meaning lies at a level beyond or below (you choose) the intelligence - which is why it is possible to respond to a poem before it has been understood - and go on enjoying it even if it is never completely "understood". Unlike muddy water, white water can be read. It takes time, knowledge and experience, but in the meantime intuition can be doing a passable job.

My title, "Only God and Eliot", is taken from something a colleague said to me years back in the staff room, one of those apparently insignificant remarks that for some reason decided to hang around in the memory: "The Waste Land, only God and Eliot know what that's about - and I wouldn't go betting on God!"

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