I’ve seen some takes celebrating the centenary of the publication of Eliot’s Modernist landmark poem “The Waste Land” this month. To the smallish degree that Twitter recognizes poetry, there have been several threads there — and general arts and literature sections of publications and websites have taken notice as well. I think this notice is greater in the UK,* since the poem has more purchase in Eliot’s adopted homeland than in the US, but long-time readers here know that I spent five years serially performing the whole thing as part of my annual National Poetry Month observance.
Some of the notices disappoint me a little. Maybe I think of it too much as a poem I “own” in the same way you may feel about another poem you’ve kept in your consciousness over time. I was going to write, and may still write, a personal memoir piece on how the poem entered and mixed with me over the years — but those same long-time readers will know that isn’t my most common mode. Instead, I think it’s more important that you take some art, poetry and/or music, inside yourself. I’m here by my intent and your accident to raise the shades or turn on a light.
More than the centenary pieces themselves, what most causes me to rise to write this month is a response that commonly follows where comments or replies are allowed. Let me create a composite example of that: “The Waste Land’ is an over-intellectualized bunch of incomprehensible nonsense that requires footnotes to understand.**”
This may be how the poem first struck you, or the way school caused you to see and discard it. Let me open some shutters and offer five ways of looking at “The Waste Land” that may allow you to see it with fresh eyes.
1. It was written after a great war in which nearly everyone in England knew casualties—and after a great deadly flu pandemic. English culture had trouble confronting this, and the man who wrote “The Waste Land” was in depressive crisis usually without the emotional capacity to confront these events, personal and national. Miraculously, the poem’s art is none-the-less that confrontation.
2. The poem doesn’t require you to understand some secret encoded message, it isn’t constructed to ask you to do that, at least immediately. Instead, it’s an intensely musical composition with various voices, motifs, and tones. Its words and images can gather more specific meaning over time, yes, but the experience is still saturated with the variety of voices and their moods.
3. If you think of Eliot as all the voices in the poem, then the poem plays with gender and sexuality more than you might expect. The speaker in the poem is male, female, indeterminate, and in the case of Tiresias, canonically intersex. This in 1922 people! Some read the poem as misogynist, a logical deduction from Eliot himself being easily indicted as a misogynist. Yet I didn’t find it so. The men and women in the poem are degraded, damaged and distressed more or less equally. I do see two plausible gender inequality issues in the imagery woven in the poem: sexual violence in the underlying Philomena-related refrains which we may read as a female-role specific event; and if we read the final section as mostly in the male poet’s voice then only one character, a man presumably, Eliot himself presumably, is allowed to emerge from the waste land and into some consoling resolution. If I ever write my long personal piece I’ll go further into those things. In summary: I found that I could read, experience and perform the poem with sympathy and shared grief for those sufferings regardless of the faults of Eliot.***
4. Eliot, a smart, talented, but also wounded and limited soul could not have made this poem himself. Ezra Pound and his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood were necessary editors and midwives. While I resonate with “The Waste Land” I’m not particularly connected to Eliot’s work in general, though the musicality of it can charm me. “The Waste Land” may be an example of how muses speak through, despite the limits of authors. And just this year it occurred to me why so many of the poem’s words are paraphrases or quotes—used musically as samples might be if this was a hip hop record. The new thought that came to me: the damaged and constricted Eliot couldn’t (or wouldn’t) allow himself to write those words in his closed-in depression.**** I think that later in his life, the emotional expression of “The Waste Land” frankly scared Eliot.
5. Want a demonstration of the points made above, that “The Waste Land” wants to primarily convey emotions, not sense? That it becomes vivid when performed, like music? That its voices are gender-fluid in their variety? This highly recommended Fiona Shaw video below is better than a raft of scholarly papers or old-men’s Internet posts in empirically demonstrating the poem’s impact. It does ask 35 minutes of your attention however.
You can find all of my musical performance of “The Waste Land” here, but this 20 minute section may best show what I hoped to achieve.
I plan to return with more musical pieces and encounters with other poems here shortly with a focus on Halloween, ghosts, and the gothic.
*For example, there was a new documentary this week broadcast on the BBC which I cannot yet see since I’m a US resident. I posted an earlier version of this piece on Twitter myself, but the Twitter audience and algorithm is smaller for me than this blog. Want another blog post with an incisive take on the critical blind-spots in representing “The Waste Land?” Lesley Wheeler’s recent take caused me to jump in a bit too hot and barking in my shared frustration with those cold, shiver and sliver of humanity, appreciations of “The Waste Land.”
**The infamous footnotes — which I now explain in a footnote — were a makeshift tactic to lengthen the poem for hardcover publication. They may have also helped a closed-off fellow like Eliot cover the emotional tracks of the poem his name was now on, but even Eliot later admitted they weren’t the secret decoder ring to his poem.
***Plausibly, I should be more concerned with authorial intent, or how some misogynist or anti-Semite could view or perform the poem differently from me. The points that gender, joyless power-unequal sexual acts, and sexual violence are integral to the events and imagery of the poem is incontrovertible to me, and were overlooked or down-played by the “let’s find the secret scholarly message” critics for decades until queer and feminist readings emerged. Saying above that you can appreciate the poem without stopping for deeper analysis isn’t denying that deeper thought and examination isn’t worthwhile. Even given the professional format of many scholarly papers, I read some of them and out from me comes a “Yes! Someone else finds, sees, feels this too.” Lesley Wheeler again gives us links to one such set of papers from a 2020 conference. Oh, and if the idea of how one can personally resonate with poetry, how it can change how poetry works, her most recent book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, written for interested readers and requiring no scholarly pre-requisites is recommended.
****If you’ve ever suffered depression, you may relate to this.
One thought on “Five Ways of Looking at “The Waste Land””
Thank you so much, Frank! This is a terrific overview, and I like the idea of reading the poem with an emphasis on musicality, too. He DOES call it “a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”
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