10 April 2012

Prose on Poetry: Jeanette Winterson

From one of my all-time favorite writers Jeanette Winterson, an excerpt from her amazing memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? This is one of those "If you only read one book this year read THIS" titles - although if you only read one book a year, what the HECK is wrong with you?!? LOL

I was sixteen and my mother was about to throw me out of the the house forever, for breaking a very big rule - even bigger than the forbidden books. The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex.

     I was scared and unhappy.

TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, performed in 1970 in Canterbury Cathedral. 
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images (from The Guardian UK website)

     I remember going down to the library to collect the murder mysteries. One of the books my mother had ordered was called Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot. She assumed it was a gory story about nasty monks - and she liked anything that was bad for the pope.

     The book looked a bit short to me - mysteries are usually quite long - so I had a look and saw that it was written in verse. Definitely not right...I had never heard of T. S. Eliot. I thought he might be related to George Eliot. The librarian told me he was an American poet who had lived in England for most of his life. He had died in 1964, and he had won the Nobel Prize.

     I wasn't reading poetry because my aim was to work my way through ENGLISH LITERATURE IN PROSE A-Z.

     But this was different...

     I read: This is one moment, / But know that another  / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.

     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, let alone weep. 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 - the first one was not my fault but all adopted children blame themselves. The second failure was definitely my fault.

     I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels.

     I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me.

Jeanette Winterson
     So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read 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 tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is.

     It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place.

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