Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Valerie Eliot's death deprives poetry of its strongest advocate

She was a vital link to modernism, both through her marriage to TS Eliot and her own intelligence, charm and love of the form

TS & Valerie EliotKindred spirits … Valerie and TS Eliot at the theatre in Chicago in 1959. Photograph: Myron Davis/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

My favourite picture of Valerie Eliot is one in which she sits to the left of her husband, 30 years her senior, at a theatre in Chicago in 1959. She leans into his shoulder, smiling, saying something her "Tom" finds amusing. He cannot but lean towards his "Val", his eyes calm, his features relaxed and gentle. They radiate mutual happiness as if they were not only of the same mind but the same body. They are entirely themselves, comfortable in their love. I've read how, "at parties the Eliots would hold hands and gaze at each other like lovesick teenagers". On a different theatrical occasion, Valerie wrote on a playbill for Anouilh's Antigone, "I sat next to TSE, my darling, and that makes any play endurable".

I first met Valerie Eliot at a party at the Poetry Society's Covent Garden premises to celebrate the 1994 TS Eliot prize (Paul Muldoon had stormed it with his still-astonishing The Annals of Chile). Although I was feeling shy, there was no way I was going miss the opportunity to talk with "Val". What happened next has always stayed with me. She was completely lovely. We laughed. And we drank a lot of wine. All we had in common was our love for poetry, but our conversation dived straight into the deep end and stayed there, buoyant and joyful for nearly an hour. We talked about how, if a poet writes within any set form, a good poet will find thousands of permutations of that form, performing through it and what she called memorably "its strings". "Think about Dante and terza rima," Valerie said, "Tom liked him!" Then out of nowhere we talked about how mathematical form performs similarly at its most multivariate and natural. She possessed a high-level mind capable of anything, especially if you could have fun with it. And anything in poetry was worth a deliciously playful and serious examination.
Full piece at The Guardian

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