During this project’s first April #NationalPoetryMonth back in 2017 I started what has become a 5-year serialized performance of the entirety of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” And here we are today, finally completing that portion of our Parlando Project.
Why “The Waste Land?” for this lengthy each-April presentation? Several reasons.
Like a number of literary cultural artifacts, the single thing widely known and carried forth from it is only a single line. A certain significant ratio of us knows “The best of times, the worst of times,” or “Do not go gentle into that good night,” or “To be or not to be” — and so you may know “The Waste Land” from its opening line: “April is the cruelest month.” That small keepsake of a long poem is much brought forward for anything that occurs in any April, and as much or more than Chaucer’s April preface to his Canterbury Tales, it’s likely the reason April is National Poetry Month. As an opening line it’s not misleading. Much cruelty happens in Eliot’s poem. Is it cruel to be kind as Shakespeare and Nick Lowe might put it? Is it just cruelty for shock effect — or can it cure, however partially? Our long serialization explores that, covering all those parts that you may have forgotten even as you remember and repeat the first line only.
“The Waste Land” is also a landmark, a milepost, a line in the sand for a certain kind of Modernist English language poetry. While this project is not entirely about the rise of Modernism, the current rules of public domain make work from the first quarter of the 20th century the latest I can surely use for my project’s purposes without complications. If time permits me, I may follow up today’s post with a later one about what I’ve learned about Modernist poetry before and after “The Waste Land” while working on this project; but when I first encountered the unescapable “The Waste Land” in a schoolbook and classroom as a teenager one thing that I understood about it (perhaps the only thing I understood about it) was that it’s quite musical in most all of it’s movements.
“The Waste Land” is not, at least in America, a beloved poem from what I can tell. Even among college-education-exposed Americans it’s not commonly memorized, kept in a commonplace way, used for occasions, or re-read for pleasure or new insights. Consistent with that, for the most part, these every-April “Waste Land” segments have not been among the most popular here.* Even among poetry lovers there are some that actively dislike it, find it a pretentious mishmash overrated by those afraid to speak plainly. Eliot himself seemed to avoid speaking about it or reading sections of it at later public readings. He may have thought his later poetry more accomplished, but I also wonder if he didn’t care to revisit the more unbounded elements of his life reflected in The Waste Land.
Which brings me to the main reason you’re about to get a chance to hear this performance today: The Waste Land is not just one thing by design or execution, but it is significantly about someone in the throes of depression. Indeed, much of this year’s final section, “What the Thunder Said,” was first drafted while Eliot was hospitalized for this. This section is not “The Waste Land” of scholarly footnotes, bank officer work, gender blurring and questioning, or the knowledge of a night-class schoolteacher for working class women, or the lament of a man who has a personal sense of the intimate losses of a great war. This is the howl of personal despair of a consciousness who can portray those things — and it’s the howl of someone seeking to explode and break out of that state.
The LYL Band performance you’ll hear if you click on the player at the bottom of this post is a live performance from more than a decade ago, long predating the other sections I’ve presented here of “The Waste Land” over the past 5 years. At the time of that performance I myself was emerging then from an episode of depression, one of two I believe I have gone through in my life. Depression has a variety of feelings and absence of feelings, and if one reads good writers describing their own depression experience you may well get a sense of the blind men’s elephant of fable, but my own feelings on the day and hour this was recorded were largely feeling sick and tired of those depression feelings. At some level I felt this section of Eliot’s poem was similar to what I was seeking, feeling, finding: an expression of an expiation of that, of demons transferred into mad pigs being cast into the sea. This coincidence of my life, a performance, and the poem would make it dear to me.
Jesus casting demons into swine. Guitar feedback not shown.
As I said, this is a recording of a live performance. Besides my voice and electric guitar playing, you’ll also hear Dave Moore’s voice spontaneously following along as I unfurled mine. I was cold-reading Eliot’s text here, I had not rehearsed or prepared for this performance, other than printing out the text. Embarrassingly, as I reached many of the foreign words in the text and fully in high transport of the moment, I mangled their pronunciation or dropped them from the reading. I used a handful of short samples you’ll hear mixed in the background to restore some of the dropped text.
In later, calmer reflection I continue to think this element of expiation is part of Eliot’s design here. A line I recall feeling strongly and intimately as I came upon it in my reading and performance that day is:
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”
Whatever part of the elephant of despair or depression you might jiggle, touch, or be crushed by, we think of the key. Can we also think, hope to think, expect to think, of the prison as invalidated, destroyed, or obsolete?
What you’ll hear if you click on the player or hyperlink is rough, it has some mistakes, and being recorded live there is little I can do to fix them — and by intent it’s not a very genteel and formal presentation of Eliot’s poem. If that was my intent on that day over a decade ago, I today renew that intent by concluding our long, serialized The Waste Land with this performance that predates all the other segments. In one of Eliot’s later poems (“The Little Gidding”) that he may have uprated over his 1922 landmark, he wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
And so it is here too: every episode for this serialized presentation of “The Waste Land” has been informed by that beginning, performed and recorded long before, that is now being used at it’s conclusion.
The player is below in most full-fledged web browsers, but this is an alternative hyperlink for those reading in apps or views that won’t show the player gadget. Yes, a longer audio piece than we customarily present —nearly 14 minutes — but it may still be worth your time and attention.
*For whatever reason, the Hyacinth Girl segment is one part that does get viewed over the years.