The Waste Land is “a modernist literary masterpiece,” written by T.S Eliot, the winner of the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature, and “one of America’s greatest poets.” I have now finally read it, but don’t know if I will read it again.
From the 16-page Introduction to the 2005 Barnes & Noble Classics Edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems:
A first-time reader confronted with The Waste Land must determine, at the outset, how to read the poem: how to assimilate it and make sense of it. It is, of course, ‘modern,’ so one approaches it with the same understanding of modern aesthetics that one brings to Picasso’s cubism, or Stravinsky’s symphonies, or Diaghilev’s dance.”
Given there are fewer words in the poem than there are in the Introduction; and, there are five pages of the author’s explanatory notes appended; and, there are seven pages of the editor’s end notes; then, one is surely “confronted,” as the Introduction warns us, with something quite complex and otherwise incomprehensible without all this explanation.
Continuing from the Introduction:
One allows that the apparent chaos of the work, the difficulty, the excess, is in some way mimetic of the dazzling and sometimes incoherent world outside; and also that things will not be presented in a neat, clear narrative structure, because anything too conventional or too easily accessible would be consequently trite—one must work hard to glean important insights from the modern zeitgeist.
We are to believe, according to the writer of the Introduction, Randy Malamud, that to be clear about what one is presenting is likely to be trite, if it is about the “modern” world. A further inference, perhaps implication, is that in order to make chaos clear one must present it chaotically.
Modernists believed that that the more complex a text is, the more it is likely to do justice to the complexity of the world outside [outside of what?-RP], a world that in the space of one generation is awakening to cinema, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, world war, and so forth.
Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1921 after recovering from a nervous collapse. Editor Malamud writes elsewhere: “Considered the most important poem of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Landis an oblique and fascinating view of the hopelessness and confusion of purpose in modern Western civilization.”
The first four lines of The Waste Land read:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
This seems to me a polite and scholarly version of another famous Howl.
The first lines of Howl by Allen Ginsberg read:
I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix
The Wikpedia entry calls Howl“a long poem about the self-destruction of his friends of the Beat Generation and what he saw as the destructive forces of materialism and conformity in the United States at the time.”
I find Howl accessible and moving; whereas, I find The Waste Land interesting and sometimes lyrical, but generally impenetrable. This is, in large part, because I am not familiar with all the works of literature that are quoted or alluded to, nor can I understand the passages in French and German. I feel myself tending toward a kind of reverse snobbery with Eliot, and with the editor of this volume.
To be clear about my snobbery I see Eliot as, and appealing to, the ivory tower intellectual, who is self-conscious of this appellation and that it should apply to him or her. Eliot did have the experience of the nervous collapse and cure, and a miserable marriage, but his poem refers to other written works, not enough to real life. It is an abstraction of life.
Ginsberg’s poetry, whether or not you like it (or him), boils up from the earth and the guts of a man, not solely from his nervous system. I feel that Ginsberg has more power, readability and accessibility in his howl against his 1955 world than Eliot’s ‘howl’ against his post-war world of 1921.
What say you?