older *ahem* more experienced I become, the more I discover how much I appreciate poetry. Sometimes I read it, sometimes I just sit back and listen. Audible gives me an excuse (as if I need one) to indulge in the latter whenever they dangle a carrot of “great poet” combined with “incredible narrator,” I find myself quite helpless to resist. And that brings us to this.
While I have read a couple of Eliot’s poems in the past, it’s been a lot of years, and I’ve never truly given him his proper due as that was back when about the only poet I “got” was Shel Silverstein. I still love Silverstein, but it’s 35 years later. Things have changed a bit in terms of what I find approachable now. Essentially, I went into this cold. I didn’t even look him up first, which I typically do so as to get an idea of who I’m dealing with and why. I gave this a full listen, the runtime of which is just north of three and a half hours. I let the poems wash over me, which is more apt to say that I let Irons’ voice wash over me, and the poetry itself was a bit hit and miss. What resonated was incredible. What didn’t was more a case of not knowing the references or not understanding where he was going with something, which prompted me to go back and look it all up in preparation for a second listen.
I know this is wrong of me, but I admit to have fixated on one line a bit in the whole of this the first time through. There’s a poem called “A Cooking Egg,” which features a line “Lucretia Borgia shall be my bride”… and it gave me a grin for the exact wrong reasons. First, Irons played Rodrigo Borgia, Lucretia’s father, on Showtime’s The Borgias. Fantastic series. Not wholly accurate (as one would imagine a series of this kind in the wake of The Tudors), but highly entertaining as rock and roll style history dramas go. Given the rather long-running and probably slanderous rumors the Borgia name has had to endure over the course of 500 years, it was more than a bit weird to hear Irons make such a declaration about his TV daughter. Second, I couldn’t help but notice he pronounced her name differently than he did in the whole of the series. And this whole matter reflects back on me as a 21st century American discovering this poetry. More on that before this is over.
As I say, I went back and did my research on both poet and poems, and then I returned to this for a second listen. As one might expect, it was a far richer experience, as it tends to be with most poetry. Just as with music, appreciation of poetry grows with familiarity and understanding. Irons, of course, is an outstanding narrator. Where he needs to be, he’s slow and thoughtful, sometimes painfully so in all the right ways, and other times he’ll pick up his “villain voice” (yeah, you know the one) to really punch up the urgency. I think I’d be hard pressed to find a better presentation of Eliot’s work. For “The Wasteland,” which is incredible, Irons is joined by Dame Eileen Atkins. They play really well off on another.
I want to call out something in particular about this whole experience… more of a rant, if I’m being honest, but please bear with me. This collection was originally presented on BBC Radio 4. As an American, this gives me something to really chew on in consideration. The British celebrate their culture at all levels, as I understand many other countries do. Here in the States, we don’t have celebrity poetry readings on our radio. We don’t even have radio plays anymore. For that matter, the closest we get to the level of British culture is what we import from the Isles via our local PBS stations. American culture is vapid. One might even say disposable. Most of the people I know go out of their way to be appreciative of that. They don’t like to think. They don’t read. They watch only the most mindless of television programs. Heaven forbid they should see a movie that isn’t a summer popcorn blockbuster. For the average British citizen, it seems like Shakespeare is in their blood. It comes natural as breathing to understand and appreciate that sort of thing. My understanding is that you get your citizenship revoked over there if you don’t soak in Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, and Charles Dickens alongside Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who just on principle. Macbeth and Daleks apparently go hand in… er, plunger. “Is this a TARDIS I see before me?” Anyway… for an American, it’s hard work because we’ve been trained to not even appreciate our own great authors, poets, and playwrights, let alone those of some other country. This is poignant for me because Eliot was born American and renounced his citizenship, becoming a British citizen. To his mind, his poetry is born of that mix. Had he been born British, or had he stayed in America, he thinks he would not have been the same poet. That’s probably true. But having one foot in each culture makes him accessible to someone like myself who actively looks to appreciate the arts. And yet, there’s still the limitations of the American market in play. It would blow my mind to be able to turn on my radio and hear something other than generic pop tunes or yappy “radio personalities” behind the mic. If I want talk radio (and sometimes I do), I seek out podcasts, where people are at least talking intelligently about something I actually want to hear about. American audiences are pandered to on the lowest common denominator in virtually every form of media available to us. Don’t get me wrong, not all of it is bad by any stretch, but sometimes it seems like it’s the cultural equivalent of a puppy mill or a cookie factory. Most Americans have no idea which authors represent their American culture, let alone why they’re important. From any other culture? Even less. We’ve heard of Shakespeare, of course, but he’s old and difficult, “with too many thees and thous.” Worse, his work is”forced” upon us in schools, leeching the very essence out of the brilliance. Heck, I’d be willing to bet most Americans only know the name Borgia from that aforementioned TV series. If that sounds insulting, it is. It’s insulting to me too. Being an American is truly embarrassing sometimes. Truth hurts, but if we want it to hurt less, we could seek out the greats and support those outlets that bring us actual art and culture. And it’s not that we don’t have the arts here, it’s just catered to the chosen few in the “golden circle” who can afford it and marked as “pretentious” or somehow “irrelevant” to everyday life. It’s like we’ve forgotten how to appreciate the arts here, assuming we ever knew in the first place.
To that end, I am beyond thankful that BBC does this sort of thing, and that such performances are made available to international audiences. I mean, where else would ever hear Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats performed by Jeremy Irons? That’s just awesome. To think, I might have gone my whole life without this. That would have been tragic. Most tragic indeed. And as it turns out, the poems of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats are the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s popular stage musical Cats, so all this time I wasn’t nearly as unfamiliar with Eliot’s poetry as I initially thought. Who knew?