She was a vital link to modernism, both through her marriage to TS Eliot and her own intelligence, charm and love of the form
My favourite picture of Valerie Eliot is one in which she sits to the left of her husband, 30 years her senior, at a theatre in Chicago in 1959. She leans into his shoulder, smiling, saying something her "Tom" finds amusing. He cannot but lean towards his "Val", his eyes calm, his features relaxed and gentle. They radiate mutual happiness as if they were not only of the same mind but the same body. They are entirely themselves, comfortable in their love. I've read how, "at parties the Eliots would hold hands and gaze at each other like lovesick teenagers". On a different theatrical occasion, Valerie wrote on a playbill for Anouilh's Antigone, "I sat next to TSE, my darling, and that makes any play endurable".
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. After their marriage, this was also the man who wrote a dedication to his wife: "To whom I owe the leaping delight/ That quickens my senses in our wakingtime/ And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,/ The breathing in unison/ Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other/ Who think the same thoughts without need of speech/ And babble the same speech without need of meaning."
Now Valerie Eliot, the widow and literary executor of TS Eliot, has died at the age of 86. Her passing marks the severing of our last link with the modernist poets. She was one of the most generous patrons of poetry of recent time. From 1993, Valerie Eliot donated the prize money (now £15,000) for the TS Eliot prize for poetry awarded by the Poetry Book Society. Every year, Valerie would present the prizes. I am judging the prize this year with Carol Ann Duffy and Michael Longley. I was so looking forward to seeing her again next January at the awards ceremony, and so very proud to be judging the prize for which she was such a strong and generous patron. Let all poets honour her. Let all poets celebrate her. Let them raise glasses of wine to her memory.