Not too long ago I was having dinner with some people when somehow the conversation turned to that great poet and playwright T.S. Eliot. Well, not all of the conversation. I think other people around the table were talking about other things, and though I can’t remember how it happened, I suddenly found myself spouting lines from The Lovesong of J. Alfred Proofrock with another person at the table. There we were exchanging great lines:
Let us go then you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient, etherized on a table
Oh do not ask what is it
Let us go and make our visit
For those of you who are Eliot lovers, the conversation continued with Proofrock’s eternal procrastinations and observations including measuring out his life in coffee spoons, wishing he was a pair of claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas and of course, talking about the women coming and going and talking of Michelangelo. Oy!
Until that night I really had not come across anyone since high school that could spout Eliot the way I could – and still can. Now, this is because as part of the HSC (Higher School Certificate – which is the equivalent of A levels or matriculation exams) – required us to cram two years worth of learning for each subject. And Eliot (along with John Donne – who is my true favourite), was one of the poets we had to study. And we studied a lot of his poems. As we had no idea in the exam which poem we’d be asked questions on and as we also had no idea if the poem would be printed on the exam paper (yes examiners can be bastards), we had no choice but to learn these poems by rote. And clearly they have still stuck with me. Or, should I say all the T.S. Eliot poems were stuck on my ceiling and bedroom walls (along with John Donne’s poems). That way I could see them, learn, them, memorize them and imbibe them. They were the last thing I saw when I fell asleep and the first thing I saw when I woke up. (Yes, I know, I had no life).
But think of the tradeoff? It’s a great party trick. I can spout poetry at the drop of a hat. Of course, nobody was really interested in all those poems I memorized in Sydney, until almost 30 years later at a restaurant in Los Angeles. And I still have no idea why HE can spout Eliot, either. Nonetheless, I found a kindred Eliot spirit. I’m okay with Proofrock although the man is far too introspective. If I ever met him, I’d scream at him: “Oy! Just eat the damned peach already! You will NOT disturb the universe.” I hated The Wasteland, not a big fan of Journey of the Magi, but ADORED Rhapsody on a Windy Night (which you’ll recognize parts of if you see the musical Cats). Of course I imagine T.S. Eliot might be turning in his grave at what Andrew Lloyd Webber did to his work but that’s another story.
Still, Rhapsody has one of my favourite lines of all time. How can you not conjure up an incredible image in your mind with this simple sentence: Midnight shakes the memory like a madman shakes a dead geranium. Yes, the man could write. Even if, as teenagers we all giggled that T.S. Eliot is an anagram of the word toilets.
So, do you have a favourite poet/poem/line from a poem? Can you spout poetry at dinner parties? And has it improved (or destroyed) your social life?