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A date for your diary: Jeremy Irons reads T S Eliot on Radio 4

I can think of no better way to hear out a grim year than listening to Eliot's poetry. It's how I'll be spending New Year's Day.

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. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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The Back Half #21: Janelle Monae, The Looming Tower and Jim Crace

The NS culture podcast with Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman.

Tom Gatti and Kate Mossman discuss Janelle Monae's new album Dirty Computer and the Amazon-Hulu series The Looming TowerThen, they hear from novelist Jim Crace, an interview that was recorded at the Cambridge Literary Festival. Finally, they celebrate another significant cultural noniversary.

Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

Get in touch with questions or noniversary suggestions on Twitter via @tom_gatti or @ns_podcasts.

Credits: 

Audio from The Looming Tower courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.

Our theme music is "God Speed" by Pistol Jazz, licensed under Creative Commons.