“Sweet Thames” from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for National Poetry Month

Today we’re going to commemorate something we did to celebrate National Poetry Month during the earlier years of this Project. In a series of posts and performances each April over five years we serially presented the entire “The Waste Land”  here.

Eliot’s Modernist masterpiece famously begins “April is the cruelest month…” — a line that is endlessly quoted during NPM and otherwise to make it as famous a line of poetry as any. Yet the extraordinary collage of words that follows may have frustrated or just turned-off as many poetry readers as it has attracted. To counter that, as I presented this poem over the years, I tried to make these points about it:

  • It’s abundantly musical. It’s possible to enjoy it while understanding little about what it’s trying to mean, as if it were a cousin of “Jabberwocky.”
  • For such a complex and multi-layered poem, it makes more sense more quickly spoken than on the page. “He do the police in different voices” was the working title for it. Vocalizing the various characters was assumed in its vision.
  • It’s a poem written by a depressive about their experience of depression. That might sound like a recipe for needless wallowing. Yet “Depressing English Majors is Like Shooting Fish in a Barrel” is not  a suitable blurb for “The Waste Land.”   It ends in uplift and a rage against self-pity.
  • Generalizing wildly: English poets sing melancholy songs, American ones sing the Blues. The Blues is analytical about sadness, tells sorrow it knows its game. Eliot, the America-to-England emigree, is somewhere in the middle, and then he draws on Buddha the bluesman.
  • The poem has a thread that examines sexual roles (summary: it excoriates them) and even indulges in some gender dimorphism. The theory that there’s a gay subtext hangs together pretty well — but objective correlative and all, the ghastly, haunting, lost, and unclaimed corpse of Jean Verdenal, and all the WWI dead, suffuses the poem. Alas, we’re now in another cruel spring of warfare this year.

But still and all, what’s the deal with a poem that has footnotes,* and seems to require them? Even my high school English teacher who did so much to introduce poetry to me thought that a little embarrassing back in the Sixties. Can we understand the wide range of quotes, parodies, references, allusions, and just plain collage better as Modernism has permeated our culture even more by our 21st century? Can we now see “The Waste Land”  as a big mix tape, full of samples being dropped? Can one dig the groove and general effect without needing to know where the sample was taken from, or what in-joke M. C. Eliot was putting down?

With a T and an S and L I @ / here to rock this mic with my river rats. / Think you’re a sick rhymer with a mad dose? / I’ve been to a Swiss asylum and been diagnosed,./ Dis my soft Thames flow while I’m singing my song,. / you might end up drowned like that Phoenician! /Peace (that passeth all understanding) out!

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The section I decided to use to represent the entire serialized performance was this one, the start of the poem’s “The Fire Sermon”  section. In this part that I titled “Sweet Thames,”  we begin with a decidedly not-so-sweet urban river, a polluted river being actively polluted, an adjoining gashouse is visited (a hideously smelly polluter), and finally we get the corpse of Jean Verdenal, lost in the sea/sand verge of the disastrous WWI Gallipoli landing being sung to and fro to a bawdy hymn about a madam and her girls who euphemistically are washing their “feet” in water.

Two ways to hear it, one way to see and hear it. There’s player gadget below for some ways this blog is read. This highlighted link is here for those that don’t see the player.  And as we’ve been doing so far this April, there’s a lyric video too, linked here.

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*Eliot later apologized for the footnotes.

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