15 December 2004

When Lilacs Last In The Dead Land Bloom'd

Go to Modern American Poetry's page on TSE
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience...
      It's a bit of a mammoth day today, at least historically, for it was 82 years ago that the moreorless full-formed version of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land was first published as a book unto itself by Boni & Liveright, a firm now long-defunct although Liveright eventually established itself on its own terms and now publishes, among others, the collected works of Eliot's contemporary Hart Crane. The Waste Land (hear Eliot reading it here) had, by this point in 1922, already been through two publication versions in The Criterion and The Dial, but this new version was the first to include the now-notorious "Notes on The Waste Land." Those notes weren't Eliot's idea, and he in fact resisted somewhat the call for notes from B&L, but he eventually relented, much to his own eventual chagrin. Not only did the notes seem to become as much a part of the poem as the text proper, they for all too many readers seemed to eclipse it, such that Tom regularly lamented their inclusion in later years, suggesting that they had over-determined a very specific textual intention for the poem, as if it were merely a series of hieroglyphs that simply needed the notes as a Rosetta Stone.

      This perhaps needs more explanation. There's a great deal of debate on the issue of Eliot's notes, and many critics are skeptical of Eliot's hesitations about them, like Stanley Sultan in his Eliot, Joyce & Company. I can't help but think, though, Eliot had long-before pre-empted such suggestions in his seminal essay "The Music of Poetry," with his famous, although perhaps somewhat facetious, declaration about the an inscribed Waste Land, to Ezrameaning of a poem being merely meat thrown to the dogs while the poet-burglar does his work. The metaphor provides a rather grounding rejoinder to those clinging to the notes as a means to decipher the poem's code. On this, I think Tom's not only right, but he reproaches criticism for some of its more intellectually-effete tendencies, particularly its desire to speak "with authority" of what poetry is "really about." In a way, Eliot's rebuke is on par with Yeats' famous self-epitaph "Under Ben Bulben," the classic example of what I once called "a pre-emptive strike at elegy," the effective speaking-for-himself before anyone else dared. And just as Yeats stole some of the steam of those successors, like Auden, ready to speak of the great poet's passing, so too did Eliot undercut those critics desperate to render The Waste Land as a predominantly historical document. "Grumbling," Eliot once called his own poem, perhaps cagily, perhaps disingenously; or perhaps it was an articulation of his own frustration with what his readers were doing to him, a cynical version of those famous lines of exasperation from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant at all." This blog shudders to think what Mr. Eliot would think were he to see what is now rather haughtily labelled as "criticism."

      The problem with writing about The Waste Land is that one never knows where to stop, let alone where to begin. The poem is now such a monument of twentieth-century literary culture that the debates about it are intense, the history and folklore about it are absolutely Mongolian in their expanse, and the reputation of the poem is known even to many that aren't familiar with it. (And, with the possible exception of Allen Ginsberg's Howl, it was the last major poem to Click here to read Helen Vendler's piece on TSE for Timehave so lodged itself in a collective cultural consciousness, an ignominious statement about our culture's increasingly dysfunctional relationship with reading and with poetry itself.) All I'll say for now is that I recommend people reread the poem, 82 years young in its permanent format but going on 200, and to direct those same people to Richard Parker's complex but immensely provocative "Exploring The Waste Land" page, most certainly the best online resource. It's also worth a look at this image, a facsimile of the first page of the poem when it was still in its "He Do The Police As Different Voices" form-- the page all but entirely scrawled through with Ezra Pound's editorial notes, and all of the words of which were eventually excised from the finished poem. (See also this very large image of the Tiresias section, in very much a different state than the final version.) Few poems have had such a profound impact on the ways in which we think about representation and performance, and-- as odd as it may seem-- its influences are still writ large into many of us now accept as familiar convention. Those that raved, for example, about the genius and ingenuity of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs tended not to recognize that Tarantino's techniques draw heavily from the methods of The Waste Land, the poem still making us as much as we remake it.

      It's a slight and probably unnecessary caveat that I want to add that, despite what I've said here, I don't think The Waste Land the best or most important poem of the twentieth century, nor do I think Eliot the century's best poet, or that The Waste Land is even Eliot's best poem. Four Quartets, for my money, outshines TWL by far; Eliot's overall stature, as history proceeds, seems to be diminishing in relation to other poets, particularly Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams; and it's perhaps still waiting in the rising of the bread that Stevens' Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction or Williams' Paterson may ultimately eclipse TWL in influence and prominence. That all this may be the result of wilfully-revisionist historicism is a debate best conducted over several pitchers worth of beer-- and it's probably a moot debate, a renaissant self-fashioning despite a preponderence of facts. But The Waste Land, finally, is a poem so central to our ideas of ourselves-- even those selves that don't read poetry and haven't even read the poem itself-- that we can't escape it, as much as a great deal of contemporary criticism is trying to wrest us from it. I'm reminded, in this regard, of the old story about the old woman that was taken for the first time to see a performance of Shakespeare. Asked afterwards if she enjoyed it, she responded mildly in the affirmative, but said too, "the play was filled with so many cliché's." Those clichés weren't clichés when they were written, of course (or at least most of them weren't); they became clichés because of the ways in which we'd inculcated them into our culture. The same is true of Eliot's Waste Land, less than a century after its publication. And to think we know ourselves without knowing that poem is as misguided as thinking we haven't been influenced by our parents or by our childhoods or by our peers. It is, in fact, one of those rare pieces of literature to which we're catching up rather than reflecting backwards. Really?, you might be thinking, a questioning tic manifesting itself in your troubled face.


      Shantih, shantih, shantih

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