TS Eliot Britain’s favourite poet

TS Eliot is Britain’s favourite poet, according to a BBC online poll. More good news: John Donne came in second and Yeats and Dylan Thomas also ended up in the top 10. I am surprised Auden didn’t make the list. How couldn’t he?

More than 18,000 votes were cast and the top 10 favourite poets are:

  1. TS Eliot
  2. John Donne
  3. Benjamin Zephaniah
  4. Wilfred Owen
  5. Philip Larkin
  6. William Blake
  7. WB Yeats
  8. John Betjeman
  9. John Keats
  10. Dylan Thomas

Other contenders included Simon Armitage, WH Auden, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ted Hughes, Rudyard Kipling, Roger McGough, John Milton, Sylvia Plath, Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith, Lord Tennyson, and William Wordsworth.I have never read Zephaniah.

Here one can hear TS Eliot reading from The Waste Land and Four Quartets. The Poetry Archive site also has readings by Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Larkin and Betjeman.

It’s revealing that Keats was the only Romantic to make the list and none of the Victorians did. The fact that Blake is also on the list suggests people today still like the kind of poetry that was popular in the 1960s and ’70s.

Personally, I would have included Auden, Wordsworth and Kipling in place of Zephaniah, Owen and Blake.

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Must a poem have a meaning?

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”

I love those lines by Robert Browning though I am not quite sure what he means. They sound grand in their limitless ambition. The irony is the speaker is the painter Andrea Del Sarto who has no illusions left. He knows his wife isn’t listening to what he is saying but is waiting for her lover. But he doesn’t object. In the last line of the poem, he says:

“Again the Cousin’s whistle! Go, my love.”

It’s pathetic, letting his wife go to meet her lover, after those heroic words that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. But read the next line, “Or what’s a heaven for?” Does he mean heaven’s outside man’s grasp? I don’t care what he means, they sound grand.

Am I being foolish? But I am not the first to think it doesn’t matter so much what a poem means.

TS Eliot thought so too. Terry Eagleton, reviewing the poet Craig Raine’s book on TS Eliot, writes in Prospect magazine:

The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said.

Yay! Poetry should stir feelings that can’t be explained in any other words than the poet’s own. Poetry has to be word-perfect. Like Eliot’s famous opening lines from 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;
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
To lead you to an overwhelming question …       
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The words are magical in themselves, leading us on almost like a movie scene with an incantatory soundtrack. Do we want to break that spell by asking, “But why are the women talking of Michelangelo and not Picasso? Or Tiffany’s?” I don’t.

Poetry is something that you can’t put in any other words. Like these last lines from my favourite poem, Fern Hill, by Dylan Thomas:

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
          Time held me green and dying
     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Beautiful, aren’t they?

The second Mrs Eliot

I was so surprised when I read today that TS Eliot’s wife is still alive. But Valerie Eliot was only 30 years old when he married her. He was 68 himself. Phew, she was not even half his age. And it was she who pursued him working as his secretary for eight years before he married her in 1957, 10 years after the death of his first wife, Vivien. She did not have him long. He died eight years later in 1965.

The story is told in The Guardian by Karen Christensen, who worked on the first volume of Eliot’s letters. She has an axe to grind. She hoped to publish letters from Eliot’s later life after she came out with the first volume in 1988. But she can’t. She writes:

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