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reed - chard witlow

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Reed: Chard Witlow

(Mr. Eliot's Sunday Evening Postscript)

As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.

There are certain precautions— though none of them very reliable—
Against the blast from bombs and the flying splinter,
But not against the blast from heaven, vento dei venti,
The wind within a wind unable to speak for wind;
And the frigid burnings of purgatory will not be touched
By any emollient.
                                     I think you will find this put,
Better than I could ever hope to express it,
In the words of Kharma: "It is, we believe,
Idle to hope that the simple stirrup-pump
Will extinguish hell."
                                            Oh, listeners,
And you especially who have turned off the wireless,
And sit in Stoke or Basingstoke listening appreciatively to the silence,
(Which is also the silence of hell) pray not for your selves but your souls.
And pray for me also under the draughty stair.
As we get older we do not get any younger.

And pray for Kharma under the holy mountain.

Parody in Reed's Chard Witlow

Modernism and Postmodernism do not, Brooker has argued, form a complete picture as much as cancel and subvert each other, through a continuous ‘dialogic traffic’. The 40’s are particularly relevant to this argument. In Faulkner’s account of modernism as between 1910 and 30, Reed’s poem should be read within a postmodern framework, yet critics have argued that modernity in fact extended beyond even the 50’s, with Olson’s ‘post-the modern’ on one side of the Atlantic, and Davie’s purity of diction on the other. 

Chard Witlow can be seen as a parody of Eliot’s self-reflexive dislocation yet subversion depends in part on the structures it subverts. Armstrong has argued that modernism in seeing itself as a break with the past, emphasised continuity, foregrounding the fact that it must break with something. Reed’s subtitle ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Evening Postscript’ illustrates both the poem’s postscript to high modernism and its dependence on modernist forms. 

Pound said that the ‘first heave’ of modernism was to ‘break the pentameter’. The irregular structure of the poem and it’s free rhyme enhances the effect of the monologue which at times becomes a speech in oh listeners and the use of we as community. There is an immediate sense of the impersonal I, parodically utilised, in ‘I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)’ which utilises a common form of speech to reread Eliot’s claim that poetry should be ‘an escape from emotion’ while functioning also on the literal level as an interruption of the monologue, resuming in ‘to see my time.’ The escape from emotion returns in the 50’s with the minipoet who is ‘basically safe’, and Davie’s rejection of the exhibitism of poetry, the emotionalism and excess of Dylan Thomas and the New Apocalypse. Here the voice is dry, sardonic, avoiding engagement, to the extent that the burnings of purgatory are described as frigid. The effect of this impersonality is emphasised by reference to bombs and ‘flying splinter’. The bathos of ‘O listeners’ ‘you especially who have turned on the wireless’ juxtaposes the poet as prophet with the mockery of the minipoet who speaks the words of Kharma: believing a simple stirrup pump will extinguish hell may be an idle hope. 

Classical modernism was already by the mid-twenties seen as elitist and institutionalised, ‘over the head of the plain reader’ as Graves and Riding argued. The use of mysticism for parodic effect in Reed’s poem can be seen as part of his rereading of the wasteland: ‘pray for Kharma under the holy mountain’ seems to echo What the Thunder Said not only in T.S Eliot's use of ‘exotic’ religions but also in its imperative tone. Here this is juxtaposed with ‘pray for me under the drought stair’. 

The poem shares the empiricism of the 30’s, a forerunner of the ironic conformism of the 50’s, any statement is hedged with qualifications ‘it is, we believe’ ‘none of them very reliable’ the idea of precautions taken against bombs, and emollients for the burning of purgatory. 

The ironic use of poetic language ‘the wind within a wind unable to speak for wind’ amid the ‘flying splinter’ can be read within what Orwell called the ‘invasion of literature by politics’ in the 1930’s. Poets such as Spencer moved away from both high modernism and ‘Georgians cultivating their gardens’ believing that as Adorno put it, the ‘burden’ of asserting what has been denied to politics has fallen to art. 

In it’s exploration of the horror of war, most poignantly in the reference to listening appreciatively to the silence which is both safety from bombs and the silence of hell, this poem can be compared to the war poetry of HD with it’s similar use of qualification, and juxtaposition of themes of religion and war ‘possibly we will reach haven/heaven’. This sense that ‘the Walls do not fall’ that perhaps the negatives have been blasted away, is absent in Reed’s poem however, which can only affirm tautologically and repetitively that ‘as we get older we do not get any younger’. 

While Chard Witlow characterises itself as a postscript to modernism it also shares it’s awareness that as Woolf put it ‘in December 1910 human character changed’, and the poetry the change requires is one which as Eliot argued must be an exploration of both the horror and the beauty of life. 

written: 2007
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