My Life In Verse – Robert Web Review: A Lovesong To J. Alfred Prufrock

June 4, 2009 by  
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MY LIFE IN VERSE, Friday 5th June, BBC2, 9.00pm ALERT ME

Being a sensitive arty type myself I’m so glad that the BBC is trying to spread the word, as it were, about the joys of poetry.

Yes, there’s a lot of impenetrable verse out there that’s about as accessible as a sermon in German (I’m also a poet). But there are also poems that have the ability to fire the imagination like no book or movie could.

Comedian Robert Webb knows very well the all encompassing scope of poetry. If you only know him from his comedy turns in Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look then like me you may be surprised at this revelatory portrait of a serious, sensitive poetry lover.

Webb’s first geniune taste to what has since become a lifelong passion was at the age of 17 when his English teacher read aloud T. S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. Since then Webb has never forgotten the way this first reading made him feel and how he was taken in by its power. As an angst-ridden teen from the depths of Lincolnshire, Webb clung to poems to transport himself out of the monotony of daily life. Less honourably he later used it to get into girls’ pants.

Webb’s journey to discover more about the remarkable Prufrock, considered to be the first Modernist poem, takes him on an intriguing journey throughout England and across the channel to Paris.

What is good about this programme, and where I felt last month’s Why Poetry Matters fell down, is that it doesn’t cast its net too widely. Because this show hinges on Eliot and Prufrock there is, naturally, a brief look at Modernism and one of Eliot’s contemporaries, E. E. Cummings. But because everyone Webb speaks with is closely tied in with the original premise you never feel like you’re being bludgeoned with unnecessary criticism and syntax.

Webb speaks with other fans of Modernist poetry including Clive James who describes the poem as, “the most concentrated form of writing.? There’s something very engaging about watching people speak plainly and honestly about poetry and Webb and James’ love of good writing is something that doesn’t require a doctorate in Joycian Symbolism to understand. Put simply, to quote Ezra Pound, Eliot’s editor, poetry is “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.?

Although I’m unconvinced I care enough about Robert Webb to warrant a second viewing, the show nicely balances discussion about the power of verse and the personal impact the right piece of work can have.

There’s a good selection of readings from famous twentieth century poets and more contemporary writers and a touching reading by Webb’s wife who incidentally wooed him with her own verse. Overall My Life in Verse is a celebration of works that transform the everyday, put meaning behind the ordinary and tell us what it’s like to be alive.

If you have a soul you should probably watch it.

Jack McKay