Robert Webb: My Life in Verse

Another brilliant programme tonight in the BBC’s Poetry Season. This time it was My Life in Verse presented by Robert Webb – a startlingly truthful film which would inspire anyone watching to go out and grab some poetry.   Webb tells how he was 16 when he first heard The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot. His English class were grappling with The Wasteland when a cheeky classmate described it as ‘meaningless’. Robert’s teacher responded by reaching for Prufrock, reading the class the entire poem and asking if that had enough meaning for them. Robert was blown away by Prufrock and that classroom encounter sparked a lifelong passion for the poem.

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…

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Robert goes on a journey to find out more about the poem and the poet that captured his imagination at such a young age. He returns to the Lincolnshire classroom where he first heard Prufrock and visits the school hall where he made his first forays into comedy. He also travels to Paris, where he discovers that the young TS Eliot shocked his respectable American family by spending a year in the famously decadent city. And closer to home, Robert visits East Coker, Eliot’s final resting place and the inspiration for one of his greatest poems. There, he finds that Eliot has inspired a vibrant local poetry society which meets every month in the local pub to share a passion for poetry.

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

Throughout the film, Robert explores why modern poetry has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ while he thinks it can touch at the heart of what it means to be human. He meets Clive James who is, like Robert, a huge fan of E E Cummings and they discuss Cummings’ poem,i carry your heart with me.

EE Cummings: i carry your heart with me

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Robert meets Andrew Motion to discuss Philip Larkin, and they discuss the way in which Larkin’s poetry combines and moves from the ordinary and colloquial to quiet reflection and symbolism – reading two poems,  This Be The Verse and High Windows.

Philip Larkin: This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin: High Windows

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives–
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide

To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark

About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Finally, Robert meets the poet Don Paterson, who reads The Thread, a poem written for his second son (after he had written Waking With Russell for his first).

Waking with Russell

Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again,
possessed him, till it would not fall or waver;
and I pitched back not my old hard-pressed grin
but his own smile, or one I’d rediscovered.

Dear son, I was mezzo del cammin
and the true path was as lost to me as ever
when you cut in front and lit it as you ran.

See how the true gift never leaves the giver:
returned and redelivered, it rolled on
until the smile poured through us like a river.

How fine, I thought, this waking amongst men!
I kissed your mouth and pledged myself forever.

The Thread

Jamie made his landing in the world
so hard he ploughed straight back into the earth.
They caught him by the thread of his one breath
and pulled him up. They don’t know how it held.

And so today I thank what higher will
brought us to here, to you and me and Russ,
the great twin-engined swaying wingspan of us
roaring down the back of Kirrie Hill
and your two-year-old lungs somehow out-revving
every engine in the universe.

All that trouble just to turn up dead
was all I thought that long week. Now the thread
is holding all of us: look at our tiny house,
son, the white dot of your mother waving.

- From Landing Light by Don Paterson

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