We may have come nearly to the end of January already, but we can still call 2017 a new year — at least until we’ve listened to the poetry of T.S. Eliot to properly ring it in. “There’s surely no better poet than Eliot to help us confront the problem of finding meaning in a world where old certainties are being troubled,” says Martha Kearney, host of BBC Radio 4’s New Year’s series celebrating his work.
“Our lives are so busy now that we need some help from the season to just take stock, both of where we’ve been and where we might like to go to,” says the first episode’s guest, novelist Jeanette Winterson. We need to inhabit “that inward moment that poetry’s so good at,” and that Eliot made entirely his own. The bulk of that broadcast comprises a reading of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by Jeremy Irons, surely one of the poet’s ideal living interpreters. (Note: you can stream all of the episodes in the series here.)
Irons reads more in the second, which includes a discussion with Winterson and Anthony Julius, Chair of Law and the Arts and University College London, about the opening of “Gerontion” and the “ugly references” made in Eliot’s other poems. The discussion in the third, in which Irons takes on Eliot’s immortal “The Waste Land,” looks for the source of the power of its “poetry of fragments” with former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Scots Makar (something like a Poet Laureate of Scotland) Jackie Kay.
“The Waste Land” continues as a subject in part four, as its guest, the actress Fiona Shaw, has drawn acclaim for her own reading of the poem, but the Irons section of the broadcast offers various other selections, including “The Hollow Men,” “Ash Wednesday,” and “Journey of the Magi.” Finally, in part five, Kearney and Rory Stewart, Member of Parliament and man of letters, talk about and hear Irons deliver Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” whose language Stewart memorized on a walk through Nepal and which he later used during his political campaign.
This poetic, conversational, and performative radio feast comes to nearly four hours (listen to all of the episodes here), but you’ve got only the next six days to stream it. Otherwise you’ll have to wait until Radio 4’s next, as yet announced calendar-appropriate celebration of Eliot. They’ve used his work to refresh audiences after a troubling year; perhaps they’ll use it again to get us through the cruelest month of this one.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.