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More About the Vital Valerie Eliot

By Harriet Staff

We mentioned, earlier this week, that Valerie Eliot, wife of T. S. Eliot, has passed away. More to Eliot than meets the eye, of course. The New York Times has just published its obit, noting that the former secretary was also a steadfast editor, defender, and steward of the Eliot estate. They married when she was 30, and he 68. And as The Guardian writes, “She was a vital link to modernism, both through her marriage to TS Eliot and her own intelligence, charm and love of the form.” More from NYT:

Mrs. Eliot, who was almost 38 years younger than her husband, had been his secretary for several years at the publishing house Faber & Faber when they married in 1957. By all accounts it was a happy marriage. Like many who considered Eliot one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, she had admired his poetry since she was a teenager; she had sought out the job at Faber & Faber specifically because he was there.

Eliot, who guarded his privacy fiercely, died in 1965, having stated his wish to keep biographers from stirring the ashes of his life. His wife became the stewardess of his estate, doling out permissions to quote from his work with extreme parsimony and routinely turning away requests from scholars and the dreaded biographers.

She herself, however, edited a much-admired edition of “The Waste Land,” consisting of a facsimile and transcript of its original drafts and edited annotations by Ezra Pound. And she approved a theatrical adaptation of her husband’s book of poems for children, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which became the musical “Cats,” bringing her and the estate great wealth, from which she created a charitable trust.

The major project of her later life was editing her husband’s letters, though for almost 25 years only one volume of them — covering 1898-1922, from the time Eliot was 10 until he was 34 — was published, in 1988, leading some to speculate that she had been too intimately involved with the material.

“Valerie Eliot has been editing her late husband’s correspondence for three decades,” Karen Christiansen, who had worked for Mrs. Eliot on the first volume and who later founded the Berkeley Publishing Group in Massachusetts, wrote in 2005. “When I worked for her, I often wondered if she would be able to let go of any of the letters and was breathless with relief when the first volume went off.”

And in addition to their regular obit, one approach at The Guardian is anecdotal, with David Morley writing:

…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.

I own up to the fact that I first wanted to talk to Valerie because she was the widow of the famous poet whose work I so admired. She seemed like a living link to a period of modernism – and while she was that link, she was also so much more. The truth is that, within two sentences, you wanted to talk with Valerie Eliot because she was Valerie Eliot. Her directness, intelligence and poise charmed those of us who were lucky to know her. You can see why Thomas Stearns Eliot fell in love, and as he wrote, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” He was possessed by his passion for Valerie. Their married happiness stopped his demons in their tracks. Anxiety being what Eliot called “the handmaiden to creativity”, he did not need to write poetry any more.

Yet what was so very striking was Valerie’s ability to draw you into a place where it felt all right to be a poet – where she made you feel at ease with all the attendant murderousness of being alert to the enchantments and entrapments of language. After our conversations, she always left me feeling that I was “all right” – that it was all right to be self-annihilated by words. Can you imagine how it must have felt for TS Eliot? – the man who wrote, “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things’. Being with Valerie must have felt like the universe had forgiven you your very existence.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, November 15th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.