On poetry, the inarticulate and business-speak

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of T. S. Eliot. Earlier this term we were fortunate to welcome to King’s Christopher Southgate, who gave a reading in Chapel, on a dark Wednesday evening, of his extraordinary verse biography of Eliot, A Love and its Sounding. The next day I was pleased to chair a lunchtime discussion with Christopher, again in Chapel, which took as its starting point these striking lines from ‘The Dry Salvages’, the third poem of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

The lines point to Eliot’s abiding concern with the very nature of the poetic voice, the voice who experiences life and dares to articulate something of that experience, however fleetingly, however ephemerally: ‘you are the music / While the music lasts.’

Since then I’ve enjoyed rereading the rest of the Four Quartets and have found myself coming back again and again to ‘East Coker’, where Eliot gives a wonderfully vivid account of the inadequacies of language:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—

Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres

Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.

The middle-aged poet battles to recover language, to wrest words back from the inanity of the everyday, to redeem those words by giving them new birth, ‘a new beginning’. And here, for me, Eliot puts his finger on the very essence of poetry. For poetry is at once rooted in life and at a jaunty angle to it, it is both common and strange, it works unsettlingly on the everyday, on the common ways of thinking to which we have unthinkingly become accustomed.

I couldn’t help remembering Eliot’s ‘raid on the inarticulate’ a couple of weeks ago when I found myself, on a long train journey, sitting next to two businessmen, whose seemingly unthinking absorption in, and glib articulation of, the very worst of business-speak I found fascinating and infuriating in equal measure. Their spirited talk was of ‘trading on high-end people’ and ‘letting low-performance people go’; the challenge, apparently, was to ‘differentiate our propositions as we build up a sustainable model’, the ultimate aim being to ‘build a business, ramp it, sell it, get out’. I was relieved to get out at the next station: this inarticulate prose seemed a far cry from the poetry of Eliot.

But such business-speak thrives – and universities are by no means immune. English universities in particular, at least under the current funding regime, necessarily operate as businesses: competing for fee-paying students necessarily requires us to develop strategic plans, to have marketing campaigns, to develop metrics, to focus on enhancing the services we offer our students while reducing where possible our burgeoning operating costs. And in a sense none of this is a bad thing if the end goal is ensuring maximum accessibility for talented students, regardless of their backgrounds, to the best possible education, one that helps them lead more meaningful, even happier lives. Talking about how we increase the efficiency and quality of our professional services structures, in other words, has to be framed within an ongoing conversation about the intellectual importance of learning, scholarship, diversity and wellbeing. Business-speak that does not help us to talk about the core values of higher education is akin to Eliot’s ‘shabby equipment always deteriorating’. If launching ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ helps us to articulate better what is distinctive – and distinctively important – about the work that we do in universities, then perhaps we’ll restore some of the poetry that characterises that work – not least the capacity to make a difference to people’s lives – while we still have a chance to do so, ‘while the music lasts’.

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