Monday, November 16, 2015
Currently Reading 11.16.15
While I'm aware this isn't Poem of the Week, and while I'm sure any English major worth their salt has covered this before, I'm still drawn to talking about "The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot's grand poetic opus. Hey, what can I say? It's what I happen to be "currently reading" as I type this.
It's not like "The Waste Land" doesn't warrant plenty of discussion. People have been talking about it for decades, analyzing its obscure references and quoting its breathtaking stanzas and pretending that they, like, totally get it. I'm not gonna pretend I understand every verbal juxtaposition Eliot makes; honestly he'd probably get mad if I did, because he doesn't want people to get it. In my experience, he's a poet who likes to throw you off and make you Google obscure references to Greek myth and tarot and whatever the hell else he wants to talk about.
I sound pretty critical. I like "The Waste Land," I swear, but not for its references, not for its high-brow reputation, but, as with all poems I like, for its feeling.
If you've ever read the poem - if you're in this department, that seems like a given, considering I'm on my second in-class readthrough - you know it's a swirling mess of negativity. The fear of encroaching death looms over the entire work, starting with its title and following throughout: "Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you / Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded / I do not know whether a man or a woman / —But who is that on the other side of you?" While I believe strongly in the idea that a person's work should stand on its own two feet, context can add a different dimension to a work. While he was working on "The Waste Land," Eliot was suffering from a series of nervous breakdowns, what in modern times would likely be addressed as an anxiety disorder and panic attacks. Eliot, considered a British poet, was American by birth, and struggling with his fluctuating identity as he established himself in England, while simultaneously facing problems in his marriage. His wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, had health issues of her own, both physical and mental, and the two had a notoriously unhappy marriage on top of that. Vivienne once said of her husband, "I loved him, but to my own disaster." Out of this stress, "The Waste Land" was born, and my god, does the poem ever show it.
That's what I mean when I say it resonates with me for its feeling. The poem is steeped in hopelessness, confusion, agony, and despair. If you can't catch a single reference Eliot makes, you can feel as he feels through his poetry. "The Waste Land" seizes me in the same way reading Sylvia Plath does, like long claws reaching out from the page and gripping me tight. Eliot walks through a shellshocked, wartorn "unreal city," a place that is more mindscape than geographic location, where lilacs grow from corpses and shadowy figures cross paths with ancient Greek prophets, where the aftermath of World War I is related to an unhappy marriage bed, where thoughts go unspoken and become inescapable nightmares.
The poem is regarded as the best of its era, perhaps the best of all time. I tend to notice a trend of incomprehensible entries to the canon being elevated, likely because no one wants to admit they don't get it and therefore heighten their praise to cover their confusion. Despite this, I don't think poems like "The Waste Land" weigh so heavily on our cultural consciousness simply because we all want to look smart. I think it has staying power because of its honest expression of sentiment. Within these stanzas, we get a slice of Eliot's anxiety, the kinds of thoughts that were tormenting him internally now spilled out on paper. "Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images" - what an odd thing for a poet to write, to describe modes of expression as something useless, disjointed, unable to grasp the true meaning of something. "A heap of broken images." I love that phrase. It makes me think of memory, and it makes me think of the struggle to turn the words and pictures into my head into stories others can understand. "I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence." I feel this anxiety, the sensation of a writer losing their words. It's so disorienting; words are my purpose, words are my foundation, and when they fail me, what do I have?
Of course it's a fun challenge to try and pick out Eliot's references, his allusions, his comparisons. But "The Waste Land" stays in my memory because of its emotional depth. Because when I read it, I don't get it. I feel it.