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Radio: Waste of a poem

03 April 2012

by Edward Wickham

HAMLET, the story goes, was once praised by a loud-mouthed theatre­goer for being full of quotations. The 20th-century equivalent, the poem that, with every line, seems to provide another quotable epi­gram, is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — un­surprising, perhaps, since the poem itself is crammed with refer­ences. “Fragments I have shored against my ruins”, the poet writes.

As a result, the text has itself at­tracted such congested marginalia that the original words almost dis­appear. Eliot provided notes only grudgingly (and they themselves have acquired notes); but no such circumspection afflicts those who came after. And so, to fill out the 45 minutes allotted to the Radio 4 After­noon Drama last Friday (Radio 4), we were treated to the musings of, among others, the poet, Jackie Kay, and the poet-Archbishop of Canter­bury.

The poem, we were told, is about the loss of authority and faith; it is compassionate, but unsentimental. And — a point made often, pre­sumably so as to justify a treatment on radio — it is a poem that is opened out to a diversity of char­acters. “He do the Police in Differ­ent Voices”, Eliot once considered calling the poem, before Ezra Pound took his editorial ice-pick to it.

Theatre and radio audiences have before now sat reverentially, listening to the voices of Madame Sosostris, Tiresias, and the rest, characterised by skilled thespians. On this oc­casion, we had Eileen Atkins and Jeremy Irons. But all it did was to reinforce the essentially literary, “notated” nature of the work. The Waste Land is a text about texts. Poets get all dewy-eyed about the import­ance of reading poetry out loud. But The Waste Land is not a made-for-radio pro­duction. The voices are in the head of the reader.

Perhaps it is just that I do not like being told what to think about a great work of art. That is why I had trouble with a number of contribu­tions to The Schubert Lab, a series of discus­sions for the mam­moth Radio 3 Schubert season last week.

Tom Service addressed specific “questions for the day” that related to the great composer, such as whether Schubert was “with the angels or bathed in slime” (a dich­otomy sug­gested by an account by Schubert’s friend Josef Kenner, who concluded that he was both).

To answer this particular ques­tion (last Friday’s task), Service called upon a brain specialist, a psycho­therapist, and a performer. We were played extracts that sup­ported the angelic and the slimy in turn; and the studio (observable on the video podcast) was adorned with a winged skeleton of the com­poser, and some phials of murky chemicals.

All that we learned was that even the greatest exponents of this music are incapable of describing, still less explaining, the seemingly chaotic piano Sonata in A minor — a late work by the temperamental, and by then syphilitic, composer.

Mendelssohn famously re­marked that it is impossible to talk about music — not because music’s mean­ing is imprecise or fluid, but because language is. Music knows exactly what it means, and ex­presses it with complete clarity. That is no help if you are a Radio 3 presenter, of course; so don’t be­grudge them the slime and skeletons.

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