‘Language is what stops the heart exploding’

In this essay, written for The Guardian on the occasion of a 2008 T.S. Eliot festival at London’s Donmar Warehouse, Jeanette Winterson offers her thoughts on Eliot’s work and legacy. She talks about The Waste Land at some length and describes her first encounter with Eliot’s poetry in her local library.

‘It looked a bit short for a mystery story. I hadn’t heard of TS Eliot, but I read the line about “sudden painful joy” and I started to cry. Readers looked up reproachfully, and the librarian reprimanded me, because in those days you weren’t even allowed to sneeze in a library, and so I took the book outside and read it all the way through, sitting on the steps in the usual northern gale.’

‘The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family (I am adopted, so being packed off for a second time was very hard), the confusion of sexuality, and the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat and how to get on with my A-levels.’

‘So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.’

Read the full article here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/nov/15/ts-eliot-festival-donmar-jeanette-winterson

Cardiff BookTalk will be discussing The Waste Land on 15 August 2022. The event is free and open to all via Zoom. Book your place via Eventbrite at the link below: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/cardiff-booktalk-the-waste-land-registration-379527345507

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