Since April is National Poetry Month, let us return to that April epic of High Modernism, T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Readers here will know that I’ve made great use of the works of the pioneering Modernists, that generation that formed itself on both sides of the Atlantic in the years before the outbreak of WWI.
We’ll continue to talk about them later, but for now I’ll point out that one thing they all shared was a commitment to shorter works with new imagery often drawn out of immediate contemporary experience. Given how I later encountered Modernism in Mid-20th Century American schools, I have been surprised at how simple, how commonplace, were the materials they used for their fresh imagery. Subtlety and ambiguity were not forgotten, but they were not belabored.
To “make it new” in this pre-WWI era, it was often to radically simplify. If traditional poetry was referred to, it was not the grand epics or the most serious verse of the past centuries, but the highly compressed Chinese and Japanese forms, Greek lyric fragments, or vernacular verse from folk traditions.
Modernism as it mutated after WWI had no such concentration. Grand themes and grand works were once more the best goal. Allusions to tradition abounded. As High Modernism marched forward toward my own Mid-Century youth, its poetry began to take an air of post-graduate knowledge as a pre-requisite to understanding or enjoyment.
Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is a landmark for this change. I’m not an Eliot scholar. I won’t presume to psychoanalyze him accurately at the biographic point where he wrote this, with some key editorial re-shaping by Ezra Pound. As I said when I presented the opening section of “The Wasteland” here last April, the poem is clearly informed by personal depression. Since a large percentage of contemporary people have experienced depression and grappled with it, parts of “The Wasteland” communicate with us on an emotional, associative level even if we don’t understand it in a “pass the exam” way. This is good for the poem.
I’ll show you fear in a handful of chalk dust! Evidence of T. S. Eliot trying to invent Sudoku.
Eliot’s complex, even maddening, use of distancing tactics in “The Wasteland:” the rapid dislocation of location, time, speakers, and national language, along with a plan to make everything a possible reference to something else—usually something old and not mundanely immediate—is not at all like the pre-WWI Modernists. Still, that didn’t keep that sort of older Modernist style from breaking in every so often.
Today’s piece “Hyacinth Girl” is one such part of “The Wasteland.” If it had been presented as a standalone poem in one of the early Imagist anthologies it would have fit right in. There’s no post-graduate work necessary here, as was demonstrated by an 80s college-rock band who conceptionally used the same trope with no need for footnotes.
Not Eliot’s, nor my “Hyacinth Girl,” and not Winter Hours’ either. This is the original version by Ward 8, a predecessor band that make it sound more like the Velvet Underground.
Studied academically and considered as a part of the rest of the poem, Eliot’s “Hyacinth Girl” section needs not to be experienced this way, directly. One can consider any intended connection to the Greek myth of Apollo and Hyacinth and their tragic Frisbee accident with homoerotic overtones. I did so just yesterday, reading some papers and summaries of papers which if nothing else made me conscious of how often gender is unknown and shifting in “The Wasteland”—but I did this long after recording my performance of “Hyacinth Girl.” I didn’t feel the need to revise it in the light of the papers or the classical reference, no more than I needed to know if it refers to Eliot’s girlfriend, or his wife, or a young man who was killed in WWI. Pound had once said that the image is “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Eliot seemed unsure that it should be only that, if that was enough, which lead him and Modernist poetry to some strange places and practices, but it didn’t stop such direct poetry from breaking into “The Wasteland’s” manifesto of High Modernism.
To hear my performance of this part of Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” use the player below. It starts out with just acoustic guitar and voice, but eventually some bass, strings and piano arrive. What would additional parts of “The Wasteland” sound like if combined with eclectic original music? Stick around during #npm2018 as we’ll be letting you find out.