Listening to T.S. Eliot

Today in a discussion with my bosses at the Office for the Arts I learned that the image of rolled trousers in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock didn’t only signify rolled up pant legs. "Rolled trousers are a fashion statement, folded up and creased with perfection – it’s a certain type of man that does this, a formal man, a fashionable man, an old man," they told me. The argument was whether Eliot was too antiquated as a poet for a younger audience to fully appreciate.

Last Friday, The Department of English, The Office for the Arts, and The Office of the President and Provost at Harvard invited Josephine Hart (host of The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour at the British Library in London) to present actors Dame Eileen Atkins and Brian Dennehy in a reading of T.S. Eliot poems. The event took place at The New College Theatre in the evening, and the place was packed. I arrived early, but even fifteen minutes before curtain admission was standing room only.

The first Eliot that Dennehy read aloud was Prufrock. His voice was low and hollow, rough and aged with a hint of resignation, like the long notes of a weary basoon. His face was expressive and he licked his right finger often in preparation for the turning of the page. After this motion, his hand would hang suspended and easy, opening and closing with the rhythm. Pervasive in these readings of Eliot there was a sense of familiarity, comfort, even of pretension.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized 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.

The reading was entertaining, enrapturing. Listening to the words read aloud – or more accurately, performed – was a transformative experience. The rhythms and movements of Eliot’s language resonated throughout the theatre and the audience was utterly silent. Like listening to a symphony, we were asked not to clap between poetic movements.

The program continued with Dennehy and Atkins reading aloud Portrait of a Lady,Fragment of an Agon (Excerpt), and finally, The Waste Land. Atkins’ versatility came through in her readings of Eliot’s female characters in the poems: a society lady taking tea with a friend, a woman with a cockney accent chatting with other women. The event was a unique hybrid between reading and performance. And in the end, I think Eliot as a poet was well chosen.

For an event like this, his poetry was musical, entertaining, and powerful. There is a performative aspect to Eliot’s writing – through his use of characters, of sounds – that helps forge the bridge between the abstractions in his imagery and the meanings behind them. Although a younger generation may not understand specifically what it means for a man to wear his trousers rolled, through the expression in Dennehy’s voice, through an evening of poetry, performance, and celebration, there is no denying Eliot’s influence on modern poetry and the significance of his work.