January 2023

100 Years in the Waste Land

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce



Possibly the most famous—for some, notorious—English poem of the 20th century was published in October 1922. T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" appeared simultaneously in The Criterion in the UK and The Dial in
the US. While it's not entirely accurate to say that the poem created Modern poetry, it is unquestionably the most influential and monumental. It is probably the most praised, reviled, analyzed, and discussed poem of the 20th Century.

A great deal of lore external to the poem itself surrounds it, such as the fact that Eliot wrote it in part to recover from an emotional breakdown and that the poem itself reflects his perilous mental state, as well as his painful and fraught marriage. The role of Ezra Pound in carving the original sprawling manuscript down to the relatively compact poem we know today is also legendary.

For all this, the poem landed on English and American literary culture like a nuclear explosion. Whether loved or hated, it was impossible to ignore.

The appearance of the poem was polarizing in a way few previous literary productions had ever been. Ezra Pound—admittedly someone with a large stake in the matter—said it was "about enough to make the rest of us shut up shop" and called it "the justification of the 'movement,' of our modern experiment, since 1900."

On the other side of the Atlantic, the two arguably most important contemporary American poets were shocked and discouraged. Wallace Stevens, while grudgingly admiring of Eliot, denied any influence. "Eliot and I are dead opposites and I have been doing about everything that he would not be likely to do…. I regard him as a negative rather than a positive force." William Carlos Williams was even more disturbed. The poem "wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it." Williams saw the publication of "The Waste Land" as a major defeat for the campaign he and his allies were waging to create a new, genuinely American poetry.

Nowadays, when "The Waste Land" sits securely if not always comfortably in anthologies and syllabi, it's easy to give it a nod in passing, possibly seeing it as a relic of early Modernism without much relevance to today's world. However, and its centennial approached, numerous essays and articles appeared in both literary and journalistic publications celebrating the poem and relating its history and reception. I hadn't actually read the poem myself in some time, so I picked it up and read it. Then read it again. Then went to the library and picked up the Norton Critical Edition and read it slowly, line by line, looking at the explanatory notes  and then reading some of the excerpts from sources used or alluded to by Eliot.

I can't say these readings had the same impact as the first time I read it decades ago, but I felt excitement mount nevertheless as I made my way through the poem.

I first read "The Waste Land" in high school, probably my senior year. It was not part of the curriculum, but I was in an Honors English class whose brilliant teacher, Mrs. Gayle Smith, rest her soul, pointed us toward other literature beyond the syllabus. I had no idea what I was reading, having barely put a toe into modern poetry, but I still remember the exhilaration I felt as I let the words wash over me. I was unable to translate the foreign language passages nor did I recognize many of the allusions, but somehow reading the poem in my untutored state had a powerful impact on my budding literary mind. I first turned to Eliot's somewhat more accessible "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Hollow Men," then started my deep dive into poetry from which I have never returned.

I have nothing to add to the voluminous criticism, explication, analysis of "The Waste Land." Millions of pages of text are readily available in bookstores, libraries, and the Internet. I'd rather here prefer to suggest some ways into the poem for those who have not read it (are there any such ?) or have attempted to and been repelled by its famed difficulty.

First, don't try to understand it. Let the language(s) wash over you. Read slowly and savor it line by line. Every time I read the poem, I am caught by the beauty or power of some of its individual lines or passages. "I had not thought death had undone so many" (translated from Dante). "I will show you fear in a handful of dust." "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man/You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/A heap

A heap of broken images." "'My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me./Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak./What are you thinking of/What thinking? What?/I never know what you are thinking. Think.'"

The poem becomes much more approachable if you view it as using the techniques of the then-new art form of the cinema. Eliot uses montage, quick cuts between scenes, an almost Altman-like chorus of voices. The mixture of diction, high, low, and foreign is challenging but thrilling.

Besides its status as a tower of modernist poetry, "The Waste Land" can be seen as prophetic of our own time. We are all familiar with the cinematic elements mentioned above; we live in a world of constant and overwhelming information flow; we face much the same moral and spiritual decline that Eliot describes. The post-WWI fragmentation of culture and society in which he lived and wrote has come almost to full fruition by now.

If you wish now to read the poem, there are many ink and paper versions available. Or you can read it here (minus the notorious notes Eliot appended to the poem:

One wonders how readers 100 years from now will respond to this modernist epic.


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Greg Luce -Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of five books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA. More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives

©202 Gregory Luce
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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