Five Ways of Looking at “The Waste Land”

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.

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I plan to return with more musical pieces and encounters with other poems here shortly with a focus on Halloween, ghosts, and the gothic.

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*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.

I mention Rupi Kaur in an attempt at getting more followers

I refer to it less, but this ongoing Parlando Project actually causes me to spend more time with music—composing, playing, recording, and mixing it—than with the words. The words, of course, are mostly poetry, as condensed expression is so often found there mixed with musical devices in word form.

I’m not alone in thinking there’s a natural connection there. Perhaps that’s why you’re reading this, rather than a blog on cinema, graphic novels, or the interesting things I did last night. From what comments I get, the words, mostly poetry, are the larger draw and concern—or it may be that it’s easier to talk about words and their potential messages than it is about music.

But speaking now of America and the English-speaking musical world, what if it largely functioned in this manner…. Insert woozy musical cue here indicating we’ve moved away from our mundane current world into some speculative alternate reality as a new voice takes over this blog:

 

Music is a sublime art, which alas is much ignored and misunderstood by most people. Oh yes, there are occasional times when folks seem to pay some attention to what they think is music, but in fact it’s not really music they are listening to. For someone younger than I, it seems it’s always been so. How did this happen?

In my youth there were people who listened to a highly commercial aggregation of “musicians” who went under the name “The Beatles.” In their unsophisticated way The Beatles would bash away for a couple of minutes, never showing the development and dynamic range of actual music, and then they’d publish their “songs” on recordings that would be played on abysmal “record players” that were aptly named because they could only spin the vinyl record at something approximating the correct speed and could only transduce the rude noise to an even cruder racket. The Beatles, to be honest, weren’t the worst of those “pop musicians”—they were Stravinsky compared to some others in their field—clearly actual musical quality was beside the point.

Perhaps I shouldn’t object too much now to this commercial enterprise once undertaken by those naive or craven young men back in the 1960s, but what happened next was worse. Some actual musicians and musical critics started to give them big heads, and as a result, even worse crimes were committed. Throwing aside centuries of established artistic criteria, these commercial appeasers called what The Beatles and “pop musicians” were doing music. They would search for even a hint of actual compositional intent or accomplishment in these works, and praise them if they could pretend they found it.

Soon, The Beatles started to tack on elements used by actual musicians in their recordings. It was all transparently fake, and perhaps I should find it strange that even audiences ignorant of what real music is and can accomplish allowed it was art rather than pathetic pretense. And so, they presented recordings with string quartets, when none of them knew so much as which side of the bow to apply to the strings. They made fraudulent representations of actual music, using paid studio technicians who modified their feeble attempts at playing music so that they sounded profound to those “listeners” who didn’t know any better.

And now as I survey what could otherwise be our musical landscape and see young people who “listen” to what they “think” is “music” while playing their “video games”, dancing their interminable “dancing,” “streaming” it on their “phones” ( that they actually don’t use to make phone calls on), while “Tweeting” and “Instagraming” with tiny screen keyboards that make it hard to enclose every other word with quote-marks like an intelligent person.

I said I should be surprised. I take that back. In a world that has given us Donald Trump and Brexit and inconsistent intra-city train service, we cannot count on most people to have an authentic understanding of what they’re missing when they call such things music.

7-8th of Alban Berg is invisible

Now you know.

 

But let us, the intelligent critics who understand art and its important criteria, acknowledge the consequences of this commercial folly. Now we have people claiming to be musicians who do not play instruments, save perhaps for something called a synthesizer (a name like something from Aldous Huxley), a sequencer (gene therapy?), or drum machines (oh, such industrial nomenclature invades art in our year of Ford). They don’t know that 7/8ths of an Alban Berg is invisible, they can’t tell their krummhorn from their sackbut. When asked to defend this false and phony “art,” audiences say they “enjoy” it.

And while this pretense continues, actual musicians—people who create and perform complex compositions that take years of study to create, and nearly as many years of study to understand, are ignored.

Since when did enjoyment have anything to do with the sublime art of music?

 

Reprise that spooky musical cue that says we now return to our real world, and to Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet. Yes, our real world has musical snobs and exclusive musical passions, but in general, those haven’t harmed the ubiquity of music in our culture. Yes, musicians who produce music that challenges your expectations, usually have a harder time finding an audience, but a broad-based, vibrant musical culture has always allowed some of them to sneak in to a wider listenership, not prevented it. And musicians tend to be sensualists more than aesthetic puritans.

What can poets and literary critics learn from musicians?

 

 

(As to the title and occasion for this satire, an article has caused some discussion lately in poetry circles.)

In Praise of Not Great Poetry

I’m about to make a point that seems to me to be nearly self-evident, yet I feel the need to make it because I sense a conflicting opinion is the premise behind some commonly made judgements about poetry.

Poetry of course is only one of many arts. In our time, it is one of the arts that feels it needs to justify itself more often. Poetry feels like it’s neglected, marginalized, underappreciated, and there are reasons for it to think so.

Does music do this? One can find defenses for the value of music, yes, but these cries are not the same. Similarly, the other arts that use words: prose of various kinds, cinema, live drama—people will defend their value, but not with the elephant of marginalized dread that advocates of poetry feel they must deal with.

Why is that? I’m going to use a loaded word to describe the cause, one that is likely not quite right, but one that I can’t find a short pithy substitute for: snobbery. There may be a better word. I mean, really, it’s more at a misapplied kind of elitism, but elitism is an even more misunderstood and misused word.

Roman Hruska

Roman Hruska. Is this is a picture of a great modern poet, or a leading voice of
“The New Criticism” who established the 20th Century ideals of great poetry?

 

Roman L. Hruska was a doctrinaire Midwestern conservative who served in Congress in the middle of the 20th Century. His place in history is constrained to one quote. Hruska’s infamous rhetorical thrust, meant to defend a Supreme Court appointment before the Senate for confirmation, was so mockable that it helped defeat that candidate.

I rise today knowing that what I’m about to say risks the same fate.

Here’s what Hruska said about Harold Carswell, who as candidate for the High Court, had been attacked as a mediocre jurist. “Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”

That too is a misunderstanding of elitism. It is elitism to want the best leaders, the best judges. It is also elitism to desire all kinds of difficult and challenging arts. Given that elitism is sometimes thrown around as an insult in our century, let me be clear, I support that idea. It’s good to desire the best, to even take risks for the best, particularly in the arts, which have fewer direct consequences, and therefore can serve as a “research and development” department for outlooks and thoughts that we may want to experiment with a bit before we apply them to surgery or criminal law.

What does this have to do with poetry’s pervasive feeling of marginalization?

In the last century, poetry continued on an artistic and critical path that diverged from the other musical and literary arts. When any serious critical and institutional focus on the poetic arts were called for, poetry divested itself of all of it’s non-elite branches and expressions. Song lyrics? Not poetry. Popular poems, the kind once memorized by schoolchildren? Not real  poetry. Humorous poems? Humor, not poetry. Verse that is predominantly interesting because it’s musical speech? No. You don’t understand, poetry is about complex language examining difficult to express matrixes of experience. Thoughts and experiences from marginalized or particular speakers? Well, nice that they can speak up these days, but, please, it’s not poetry. Hip Hop/rap? Oh, come on! Get serious.

I can agree with what some literary critics and gatekeepers observe about these forms of expression, but not their judgement.

I too can be bored and uninterested in things that may fall into those “It’s not  poetry” bins. I can also be bored and uninterested in some page poetry which is credentialed and endorsed as serious mainstream literary poetry—you know, the stuff that’s poetry.  I can even change my mind about what I find interesting and worth my attention. I see new things in the work. I live new experiences. And sometimes when I’m listening to some musical speech, I’m seeking a pleasure or relief that’s hard to detail as criteria for greatness.

What if we considered all narrative prose that wasn’t a contender for the greatest novel ever written as, well, not prose. I enjoy a detective novel once in a while. Short stories can be sublime. Should I remind myself as I enjoy them that they are inferior in some criteria for a great novel? I find interest in some of the most austere or minimal modern serious music, but if every time I hear a good three-minute tune that makes a conventional set of chords seem inevitable all over again, should I feel ashamed that I think that’s music?

Can what is “not great” inform something greater? Many of the early Modernists seemed to think so—but it need not be applied like a newspaper clipping to a cubist collage or a folk tune to a symphony, it can be part of a vital continuum of human expression without needing elevation or even a judgment of hierarchy over all else.

I believe it’s a mistake for poetry, so concerned with it’s potential vital contribution to human culture, to feel that it can best survive by severing its cerebral head, leaving its ass and its elbow to wander around as “not poetry.”

The Most Anthologized American Poems of the Modern Era

Here’s a list of poets and poems, along with the year they were written:

Top 20 Poems List

 

OK, you probably already read the title of the post, so you know what they are.

This list comes from an article I bookmarked this summer that intrigued me, and today I returned to it because I’m thinking a bit about “The Canon”—those poems and poets that are judged by some generalized panel of experts as being worthy.

The whole The Canon thing is full of controversy, with complaints that it doesn’t include enough of what some favor in terms of poetic expression, or that it’s too-much a dead white man’s club; but part of what makes that discussion worthwhile is that The Canon is how almost all of us got introduced to poetry as an adult practice. Somewhere in our school years, we will be asked to open a textbook, and there on the pages will be some “great poems” that we will be asked to grapple with. Some of us will be puzzled that we can’t figure out how to do the sums of what these poems mean; and some of us will want to emulate them, to steal a little of their vision of existence, and some will hope to someday gain for ourselves something like that esteem in the eyes of others, to be, in our words, on a page in an anthology.

Sure, we may have already encountered nursery rhymes, Dr. Seuss, and perhaps some song lyrics, but these poems are the adults, writing the adult things. Poetry sections of literature classes can be as fraught with adolescent frisson as sex ed.

The article I was intrigued by was written by Emily Temple and posted on Lithub. It’s a painstakingly counted-up list, collated from twenty anthologies of poetry. The selection of anthologies has some problematic focus: half of them were specifically focused on American poetry, and nearly half (eight) were anthologies of modern or contemporary poetry. Still, the work to make this list must have been considerable, and I don’t know any similar, but better, efforts to use instead. For this post, I’ve decided to take even more shortcuts, over and above relying on Temple’s work, so bear that in mind.

I’m going to focus on the “Top 20,” the poems that appear in nine or more of the twenty anthologies. While this doesn’t eliminate the anthology-weighting to modern Americans, I think it means that these 20 poems and their authors are safely in “The Canon” as constituted in our current century. Here are a few scattered, short, observations about these most of the most anthologized modern American poems.

I had read and/or remembered reading all but three of the poems. (“Musee des Beau Arts,” “Skunk Hour,”  and “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”).  I suspect anyone who’s been interested in American poetry for a few decades would come in around that.

I sometimes worry that I’ve concentrated here too much on works from the first quarter of the 20th Century, and particularly those connected to the “Imagist” revolution in the center of that time. From this list, I shouldn’t. Nearly half the list (nine) is from this period, and if one was to play the “Kevin Bacon game” with Ezra Pound concerning these, your number is always zero to one, or you’re Wallace Stevens. I use so much from this era because I have trouble even finding the time to seek the rights to present a piece still in copyright, but also because I happen to find that era fascinating—and it turns out as far as modern American poetry is concerned, it’s still the core of The Canon.

However, even though the Parlando Project is closing in on 140 pieces, we’ve only done two of these top twenty poems (“The River Merchant’s Wife,”  and a small portion of “The Waste Land.”)

What era other than the Teens and Twenties of the 20th Century was over-represented? The Fifties, four selections, and you could consider Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1960 “We Real Cool”  sneaking in as a fifth.

Dead White Man’s Club? Not as bad as it was when I was in school. Not Dead White Males: 7 out of 15 authors if I count William Carlos Williams’ second-generation Puerto Rican heritage and don’t count that Richard Wilbur, though white and male, and still alive. The Canon is always historical, always trailing the contemporary. It’s not 7 out of 20 because five authors had two works in the Top 20. If someone does this article in 2117, or even 2067, I wager the pale dead males will be less than 50%. This is an easy bet (I won’t be around to collect from after all) but also because if we take the short-term acclaim of literary awards for new work in the past few years, I informally believe we’re already at that level. I know some will object to even mentioning these distinctions for various reasons. That’s a big topic, another time. If one wants to make an argument for tokenism from either side of that debate, that only the white males got double selections in the Top 20 would be your data point.

UPDATE:  not to belabor the White Males count, but as I pointed out when we presented “The River Merchant’s Wife” back in July, the authorship of that poem in a complex subject. It is  a translation of classical Chinese poet Li Bai. Pound’s Chinese translations are acknowledged to be of the looser variety however. If we split that one 50/50 we’re halfsies on White Males.

Here’s one that was interesting to me as I think about another issue: how old were the authors when the wrote their “Top 20 poem?” Go ahead, guess….

You didn’t look ahead, did you?

I guessed low. I was of the impression that poetry was a young person’s game, and many of the poems I’ve used here were written by authors below the age of 30. Turns out the average was a fraction over 40 years old, with Elizabeth Bishop at 65 and Wallace Stevens for his second selection at 75 making appearances for the Medicare set. The youngsters? Eliot at 27, Pound at 28 and 30, Auden and Moore at 32, Dickinson and Plath at 33. One oddity? Despite the average of a bit over 40, no one wrote a Top 20 poem in their 50s. If you’re under 30, don’t despair, as I did, thinking “John Keats died at 25, and what have I accomplished.” If you’re a poet in your 50s, consider a career in the insurance industry and plan on being Wallace Stevens.

This is another of the posts here that I’m tagging “About” that are not occasioned by a new Parlando Project audio piece. For those who can’t wait for the next piece mixing various words (mostly poetry) with original music, here’s that “included in 10 out of 20 anthologies” hit “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”  done up Parlando Project style. Use the player below to hear it.