What could any actor want to do more than spend a whole day reading the indelible, “rhythmical grumbling” of T S Eliot? The prize of this season’s radio is Jeremy Irons reading from Eliot’s collected poems on New Year’s Day (9am, 1.30pm, 2pm, 5pm and 7.15pm).
Of all poets, it is Eliot and his alluringly compact oeuvre that most perfectly suit this sort of binge treatment (he not so much “ran out of poetry” as knew when to stop). Little wonder that, after the success of the Eliot readings last Christmas, the schedulers at Radio 4 should go back for more, but this time giving us five instalments, with Martha Kearney as an MC and five secret “special guests”, too.
Let’s hope that they are special, because with Eliot the sky is the limit. Everybody loves him. In part because his greatest poems make use of the idea of the dramatic monologue. Think of the lines from that incandescent Christmas poem, “Journey of the Magi” – “All this was a long time ago, I remember/And I would do it again, but set down/This set down/This . . .” It’s a little play, and the speaker might be any one of several characters. A religious stenographer? A student? An interpreter? (I once heard it read by Timothy West, that most intellectual of actors, as though he were a millionaire businessman who was cosseted in the back of a dark-windowed car.)
But it is the confessional element of Eliot’s poems that makes them so suitable for a New Year reading. We will hear “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, a poem about things that have not yet happened, the young Eliot (who wrote it when he was just 23, like a kind of Kurt Cobain) projecting himself with spooky precision into a wasted and regretful middle age. And yet, with so many hooks and killer lines, it’s pure Quentin Tarantino (“Then how should I begin/To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways . . .”).
Crucially, these are poems that make reader and listener alike feel as though they have seen everything and understood everything – they are consoling and addictive and unbelievably catchy. I can think of no better way to hear out one grim year and turn our ears gamely to the new.
This article appears in the 13 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016