Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot

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,

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.


Serena said...

I never thought of Pound and Eliot as similar...odd to me that he would consider Pound a mentor.

I adore The Waste Land, and the only poem I like by Pound has been "In a station of the Metro"

Unknown said...

Take what I say with a grain of salt - I'm not an expert on Eliot OR Pound. The Waste Land was, in fact, rather heavily edited by Mr. Pound, supposedly, and there was an edition printed showing the original manuscript with Pound's changes, though I think it's out of print. On Google Books, here. I think. http://books.google.com/books?id=iNFu0Im2wPcC&pg=PT1&lpg=PT1&dq=eliot+waste+land+pound&source=bl&ots=kpPEUOiZJd&sig=4erVRuvMHGizM2WdijSSD1Fe7Ks&hl=en&ei=0ASDSoSANonYNeTngKYL&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5#v=onepage&q=&f=false

Rebecca Reid said...

"the mere experience of having it flood over you feels powerful"

This is why I love poetry. I think I miss the "meanings" most of the time, but I certainly do love the magic of language. Thanks for this review. I won't be so scared of Eliot in the future ;)

Unknown said...

Ms Reid -
I listened to it the first time, which was great, because it didn't let me sit and stop and fret about individual words. The recording on Librivox is nothing special, but it more or less stays out of the way of the language :).

Ana S. said...

I don't think I'd have liked Eliot very much as a person (several of his essays make me want to slap him), but I do like his poetry. He did embody a lot of what I dislike about modernism - the intentional inaccessibility, the elitism - but the man REALLY could write.

As for Pound, I have a really hard time getting over his blatant anti-Semitism, but I do like his imagist phase.

I should read more poetry. I tend to forget that I actually enjoy it a lot :P

Unknown said...

Ms Nymeth - Yes, it's much too easy to NOT read poetry? Honestly I don't know that much - just things I've read, I've never taken a class or anything on poetry, and my feelings on Ezra Pound are limited to a very few little snippets of him I've read.