Monday, 8 November 2010

WH, WB, and why Samuel West is the only man in Britain who should be allowed to read poetry aloud.

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I could tell you all about my journey and where I am now and what I am doing and what it is like to wake up in a house where the very first sound you hear is a baby singing  (she turns out to have an excellent voice and perfect phrasing), but I am going to speak of poetry instead.

Because why not? Sometimes poetry must be spoken of.

On the miracle that is the worth-the-cost-of-the-licence-fee-alone iPlayer, the BBC has quietly put out another of those extraordinary programmes that gets no fanfare or publicity but is so brilliant that it almost hurts when you listen to it. There are certain things in life that are so good they make me cross. This was one of them.

It was not fancy or swanky or post-modern or too clever for its shirt. There were no bells and whistles; no special effects; all the money that could be spared almost certainly was. It was a couple of men speaking, one man reading, and two extraordinary poets. Out of those plain ingredients, fifteen short minutes of magical radio emerged: a brief, profound mediation on Auden, with specific reference to Yeats.

The first astonishing thing I learnt is that apparently Auden is 'unfashionable'. I remember hearing this about Eliot, a few years ago. I did not really understand the concept of poets being unfashionable. I thought you were either a genius of the English language or you were not. It seemed to be so self-evident that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is one of the towering achievements of the 20th century that I could not comprehend anyone having an actual argument about it. As so often, it turns out I was wrong. Poets come in and out of fashion, and dear old WH is out.

This makes me cross and sad. Lay your sleeping head my love is one of the few poems I know by heart. (Others being: tread softly for you tread on my dreams; one man loved the pilgrim soul in you; and certain sections of the highwayman came riding, riding, riding, up to the old inn door.) I once recited it in a murky club north of Westbourne Grove which stayed open until three in the morning in the days when everything closed at midnight. The man who asked said, when I inquired what he did, 'I'm a drug dealer.' I'm not a judgemental type, so when he asked me for the Auden, I spoke it aloud.

Later I said to the friend who introduced us: 'he was very erudite for a drug dealer'.

'Rug dealer,' said my friend. 'Rug dealer. He sells Persian carpets.'

Anyway, that is not the point. The point is that I love and revere Auden, even if he did run away a bit during the war, and I love and revere Yeats even more, even if he did think he heard ghostly voices, and so the two of them together on the radiophonic device was almost more than I could bear. The poem being discussed was this one, which I think is so damn beautiful and true that I don't have enough adjectives for it:

In Memory of WB Yeats:

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree 
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


     You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

          Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

I pause for a moment in homage to my two favourite lines: 
mad Ireland hurt you into poetry, and Sing of human unsucess. 
Although the bit about what instruments we have and the 
brokers of the Bourse roaring like beasts 
are fairly spectacular.

The thing of it is, not only did the programme give all 
this beauty and interest, it got the one man 
who can actually read poetry to read it. I've banged on about this 
before, and I imagine some of you are frowning, mildly perplexed. 
It's only poetry, how hard can it be to read? The answer is: so 
hard that I cannot count the ways. I've heard poets kill their own 
poems, swallowing the words and drifting into inconsequential 
I've heard actors, who are perhaps the worst and most surprising 
offenders, smash up a work of brilliance with pausing and breath 
and odd line readings and theatricality and just too much acting. 
There is the sententious voice and the sonorous voice and the 

I should be kind, really, on 
account of the great degree of difficulty. I tried to do some of 
Prufrock once, into the webcam, to see if I had any talent for it, 
and I hashed it all to hell. I cannot tell you how dire I was. 
Luckily though, and people should hang out more flags, there is 
one actor who does it so beautifully and effortlessly that in my 
opinion he should be made to read all the poetry and not allowed to 
do anything else. (I admit I have made this point before, and I 
expect I shall make it again.) This is the glorious Samuel West, 
and luckily the BBC sensibly sent for him and he read that 
great poem with such cleverness and restraint that I wanted 
to send flowers. Perhaps one 
day I shall.

If you want to hear the loveliness, 
it is here. 
Sadly I only discovered it last night, and the mean old Beeb takes 
it off at 3pm today, so rush rush rush now while stocks last. It 
is fifteen minutes you will not regret.

I have not yet taken any pictures of the south, 
so here are some old Scottish ones in the meantime.

8th Nov 1 
8th Nov 2 
8th Nov 4 
8th Nov 5 
8th Nov 7 
The colours I left behind:
8th Nov 10 
8th Nov 3 
8th Nov 11 
8th Nov 12 
8th Nov 16 
8th Nov 17 
8th Nov 19-1 
Views to south and west: 
8th Nov 7-1 
8th Nov 15
8th Nov 6 
8th Nov 20 
Final burst of colour:

PS Apologies for slightly dotty formatting half way through. Some mysterious glitch occurred and I can't make any of it rational.


  1. What a banquet. Beautiful poetry, beautiful photographs and a great funny story (the bit about the rug dealer made me laugh out loud).

    It looks to me as though the formatting problems arise because you've copied & pasted the poem from another website? I usually circumvent these things by pasting into NotePad first (which strips out any random formatting that you may have picked up) and then cutting it out of there and pasting it into the blog. If you're feeling really daring, you can have a look at the 'edit html' tab to see what's going on...

    ... but we understand you anyway, so I wouldn't worry too much!

  2. Oh how I agree about 'fashion' in art of all sorts. Good is good as is.... and sings several octave's higher than the massed choir of mediocrity. And I love Yeats. Need to read more Auden and more Eliot.

    I have a theory. Of three recently retired senior heads of English - TWO have at different times exclaimed a violent hatred of Eliot and castigate him as a charlatan and chancer. The other, educated separately took me conspiratorially into her love of Eliot.

    I would say, find their University tutors (doubtless long gone) and you have the culprit for this travesty.

  3. Cassie - how lovely you are. And so right about the stupid cut and pasting. That is exactly what I did and then all hell broke loose with the fonts and formats. Excellent advice for the future, thank you.

    BYT - wow. Now I am even more pleased that I chose history rather than English at university. That is obviously why I have no clue who is allowed in the canon and who is not.

  4. I am a total philistine when it comes to poetry but I'm hoping one day I'll appreciate it. I do have a mighty tome of Auden's poetry in the to-read pile so perhaps November is the month.

    Samuel West has the most glorious voice. I have an audiobook of The Lives Of Christopher Chant which he reads and it's just perfection. The only thing that vaguely approaches it is Richard Armitage doing the Heyer audiobooks but alas, they're the abridged versions.

  5. sadly I fear I have missed the chance to listen to this but it does sound beautiful- and there should be more poetry- but good for the BBC for having some.

    I have quite the crush on Sam West- I love his choices, his devotion to his causes and his talent. He's on twitter you know @exitthelemming.

    Did you see the film Bright Star? Ben Whishaw played Keats and there is a version of him reading La Belle Dame Sans Merci on the soundtrack which you can download- you can probably find it on you tube too. Obviously it is quite different but I think it's lovely.

  6. Lovely photos....can I write while you snap....? x

  7. I'm so sorry I missed the 'listen again' facility. I should check your blog on an hourly basis to make sure of catching treasures.

    On the Today programme this morning I heard Fiona Shaw read "Shall I compare thee..." - and she was utterly brilliant, except - and this is unforgivable - THEY CUT THE LAST SIX LINES. I was waiting in excitement to hear how she handled the key change of "But thy eternal summer shall not fade..." and the buggers cut her off.

    Sorry for swearing, but really.

  8. Alex - Thanks so much for Richard Armitage recommendation. Keep bashing on with the poetry; I think it is so worth it. There is nothing else that does quite the same thing. (If I can say that without dying of pretentiousness.)

    Rose - Bright Star sounds fabulous. I love that pale, poetic Ben Wishaw and if he can read Keats then he goes straight up into my pantheon.

    Mr Cambridge Jones - compliment from you on my paltry snaps is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Write me any crazy thing you like and we shall do swapsies.

    Lilyanne - the BUGGERS. That kind of thing has me shouting at the wireless like a demnented old woman. So sorry about missing the iPlayer. I am always finding things at the last minute but think it is still worth posting the link, just in case someone comes to the blog in time. Am quite conscious it may get frustrating though.


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