National Poetry Day – hearing ‘Aragorn’ read TS Eliot

Since today is National Poetry Day, I thought it would be good to write a post on … well, poetry, of course. And while this blog is mainly dedicated to children’s literature, I thought I would share with you my experience of an amazing event at the British Library last month.

This year sees the fiftieth anniversary of Eliot’s death and a series of events, lectures and articles were planned to celebrate this. On September 11, I heard and saw actor, poet, painter and photographer Viggo Mortensen (of ‘Lord of the Rings’ fame) read TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’ at the British Library. Opportunities like this are few and far between and the event was quickly sold out, so I was lucky to get a ticket.

Photo courtesy of the British Library

I’ve always found Eliot a difficult poet … and for good reason. His works are full of allusions to classical literature and religion, amongst other things, and he aimed for obscurity in his oeuvre, wanting to make his reader work. His biographer Robert Crawford notes:

“Fifty years later, “difficult” remains the word most people attach to his verse. Yet we quote him: “Not with a bang but a whimper”, the last line of Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” is among the best-known lines of modern poetry. “April is the cruellest month” begins The Waste Land with unsettling memorability; no reader forgets the strangeness of the “patient etherised upon a table” at the start of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.” (quoted in

I first came across Eliot, properly, during my second BA with the Open University, when we studied ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’. I struggled to understand the symbolism, allusions… everything … and ended up greatly disliking the poem. What turned it around for me was hearing British comedian Robert Webb read the poem and explain what it meant to him, as part of a BBC programme. Suddenly I wasn’t just looking at the words and trying to analyse them, bit by bit. I was hearing the overall story, listening to the sounds, and enjoying the rhythm – which, for me, is what poetry is about. A kind of spoken song, a prayer to what is important to the writer.

I was similar affected when I listened to Viggo Mortensen read ‘The Wasteland’ to the sold-out audience of poetry lovers and, I assume, Viggo-lovers. He arrived at the podium quietly and spoke quietly about how he had chosen the British Library event over other invitations on September 11th because ‘The Wasteland’ is as appropriate now as when it was written after the Second World War.

On the train down to the event, I reminded myself of the poem and struggled, once again, with its story, becoming lost in my attempts to understand and analyse. Hearing Viggo read it, I concentrated more on the words and rhythm, the fluidity and rise and fall. To our delight, he read all the foreign language parts (eg German, Italian, Latin and Cockney!) with impeccable accents and even sang certain sections. This was Eliot as I had never heard him and, as with Robert Webb, I was entranced. Eliot ceased to be so intellectual, a poetic encyclopaedia, if you like, and became a poet. There are two particular lines that for some reason resonate with me and have done since I first read the piece:

‘I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.’
I think about them, what they mean, and why they are important to me. I can’t explain it … yet.
If poetry has always been a bit of a turn-off for you, I urge you to listen to it. Find it on the internet, or better still, go to a reading and live the experience. I think it’s similar to reading Shakespeare – it’s hard to appreciate its beauty fully in the written word. And on that final note, here’s a link to a reading of one of Eliot’s children’s poems – ‘Macavity the Mystery Cat’:
Enjoy and Happy National Poetry Day!

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