To be perfectly honest, I really expected not to like this poem. I was really kind of expecting to hate it, in fact. I've read a little bit of Ezra Pound, a jillion years ago, didn't like it, and I guess just figured this would be the same. Here's the thing - I didn't hate it. And I don't know why. It was obtuse, it made no sense at times, it deliberately obscured itself, it had all the things I hate in modern poetry.
Except for one little, tiny thing: It wasn't talking to itself, it was talking to the listener. And I think that made all the difference, for me. Ezra Pound, who edited for Eliot, and who Eliot seems to have thought of as a mentor of sorts is just the opposite - he seems to talk to himself, and sneer at the reader for not knowing what he's talking about. Like this little bit from Canto XIV:
howling, as of a hen-yard in a printing-house,
the clatter of presses,
the blowing of dry dust and stray paper,
fretor, sweat, the stench of stale oranges,
dung, last cess-pool of the universe,
mysterium, acid of sulphur,
the pusillanimous, raging;
plunging jewels in mud,
and howling to find them unstained;
sadic mothers driving their daughters to bed with decrepitude,
sows eating their litters,
and here the placard ΕΙΚΩΝ ΓΗΣ,
and here: THE PERSONNEL CHANGES,
Blah, blah, blah, I stopped listening. Cause here's the thing, I feel like the only point of trying to understand this poom is so that I can sneer at people who don't understand. That's not much of a point for me. (I don't mean this as a personal attack on those who like Mr. Pound, I just never grokked him).
T.S. Eliot is, also, kind of obscure at times, but the thing about, at least, The Waste Land is that you feel like it was written for the reader. It's not arrogant. So while you feel the obscurity, it's different, you feel this sort of desperation, like you're trying to get a child to describe a crime they've witnessed. It was kind of like reading Isaiah, which, when I was going to church, was one of my favorite bible books. The most famous part of the Waste Land is a good example:
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The words are not specific in their interpretation, but they are very specific in the way they make you feel. The other wonderful thing about this directed speech is that the mere experience of having it flood over you feels powerful. I didn't read this wtih footnotes, I didn't read it like a scholar at all (supposedly, you need a guidebook to make it through the poem with any idea of what it's about), but it was a powerful moving experience - perhaps more so, because the scattering nature of the language opens up the intuition. The effect probably was not a useful way to know what Eliot meant, but a very powerful way to know what he meant to me. And, with the entire poem taking about 30 minutes to listen to, it was just the right length for it, just long enough to draw you in to the experience and just short enough not to make you feel trapped by it.