Archive for July, 2021

Ralph Feinnes and ‘Four Quartets’

July 30, 2021

On Wednesday I went to the theatre in York, to see Ralph Fiennes present his version of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

I had wondered how the poems would work on the stage. The first of them after all, contains much material that had been cut from Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral as being essentially undramatic. The poems are an extended meditation on Time. Eliot’s own reading of them is only intermittently dramatic.

Well, the poems do work in Fiennes’s version, and triumphantly. He does not just read the poems, and does not exactly perform them. He seems to be a man living them. A single figure, barefoot, in a bare prison-like space, he is forcing himself to think through complexities at the edge of what humans might understand. Often anguished and vulnerable, he is engaged in the ‘intolerable wrestle/ With words and meanings’, trying to explain to himself the difficult truths that he glimpses, constantly pushing himself to explore further. The danger with these poems is that they could begin to sound preachy (And Eliot had a fondness for preaching, as in the choruses from The Rock ).

Looking back on it, one admires the technical skill that Fiennes applies to the task, with variations of pace and mood, finding moments of humour and moments of desolation, with movements that never seem imposed as decoration, but always compelled by the poems – even the clod-hopping dance with which he enacts the rural rites of East Coker:

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth.

While it’s happening, though, you don’t analyse the technique. You listen, and you live through the poems with him.

At times, Fiennes seemed a character out of Beckett, whose ‘No matter. Try again . Fail again. Fail better’ is prefigured by Eliot’s ‘and every attempt is a new start, and a different kind of failure.’ But Beckett never lets his characters work through towards real insights; Eliot believes that humans can at least glimse intimations of truths worth knowing.

Other performances of the poems would be possible. (In The Dry Salvages, for example, finding more of the wonder as well as the horror of the ocean.) What I liked about Fiennes’s account of them, though, was that he faced the poems head on, and gave no easy answers at all. The moments of enlightenment or ecstasy had to be earned, and were few. At the end he had come to insight (‘And the fire and the rose are one’) but the moment is indeed momentary. After saying the words, his head lowers again into the position in which he began the evening. He is a man still puzzling, still wondering, in a world with no pat solutions.

Then a long pause before we burst into huge applause for such an achievement. Oh what joy it is to be back in a crowded theatre.

Freedom for Poetry?

July 25, 2021

Well, it’s a week now since Freedom Day, and what an anti-climax it’s been. We’re all still wearing masks on the buses and in most shops. Many people reamain nervous. The country has not cheered up.

Pubs are almost back to normal now, and the theatre is gradually getting reasserting itself ( I’m going to see Ralph Fiennes presenting Eliot’s Four Quartets on the stage of the Theatre Royal in York next week – hooray!). The institutions of poetry, though are taking longer to stagger back to normal.

The places where poetry readings happen are being cautious. Universities and libraries seem to be being very cautious indeed about letting even a small crowd in for a spoken word evening. The back rooms of pubs also seem to be in less than a frantic hurry to offer their hospitality again.

Maybe some poets have got too fond of Zoom, of reading and listening from the comfort of their own homes. I can testify to the fact that there have been some very satisfactory Zoom poetry sessions – and they’ve had the advantage of bringing together poets from far apart.

But live readings of poetry matter. For me, the test of a poem is how it connects with an audience. I’ve come away from readings knowing that that stanza needs to be snipped, and a better one added at the end, and so on. Hearing yourself read makes you listen to the poem. Zoom isn’t quite the same.

Soare poetic signs of life showing yet? I’d be delighted if anyone who knew of promising UK poetry events would mention them in the comment section of this blog.

And if any group in the North of England would like to invite this poet to give a reading from his collection Old and Bookish, please do get in touch.