T.S. Eliot…Not so much

So Barb was telling me that yesterday was T.S. Eliot’s birthday and she was going to do a post about it.  Then she revealed that she was going to write about The Waste Land and she was going to speak of it in a positive sense.

I can’t let that stand.

(It didn’t stop there.  We made a road trip to Kalamazoo for my son’s rugby game and she wanted to read it to me in the car.)

hanna hall
Where it happened

I read Waste Land (in a fashion) when I was in college at Bowling Green State University.  I remember it very clearly.  We were in a corner classroom in Hanna Hall and Dr. Charles Crow was the professor.  I don’t remember the specific course.


Anyway, he had assigned us the Waste Land and the time had come for classroom discussion.  Let’s just say we didn’t distinguish ourselves.  We didn’t get it.  I didn’t get it.  And, to be fair, we didn’t try very hard.

So Dr. Crow had a poor reaction to that.  He was an extremely mild-mannered man and a very good teacher but he was irritated.

He went to Berkley (he informed us) and they had studied The Waste Land when HE was in college.  And he informed us, that they had discussed The Waste Land and then discussed two other poems in the same class period.

The Waste Land is difficult, yes, but we were supposed to be English majors and we might need, from time to time, to actually work hard on a text that is not immediately accessible, especially one as influential as The Waste Land.

Point taken.

So, hey, that was 30 years ago.  I was but an immature shell of myself then.  I decided I was going to try and re-read it now, to see how my more mature (or possibly just older) self would respond.  Oh, and I am decidedly more skeptical, cynical and waste-landy than the person I was before, too.

I poked around a little to see if there were any annotations of it.  The poem is as obscure as a Dylan song, and nobody’s calling that literature….uh, yeah, right.  Tell me this doesn’t sound like Dylan.

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see.

There are, of course, millions of annotations.

What I learned is that I am not educated enough to understand the poem at the level where it was written.  There are biblical and mythical references (and tarot cards) that just aren’t inside me, and so I’m not going to get what he wanted out of it.

But, much like a painting, I could read and evaluate it on its own terms.  So, that’s what I tried to do.

Look, there are evocative passages.  The opening lines clearly evoke a different and anti-romantic way of viewing nature.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

But about 80% of it is just lost on me…much like this…

The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water

I don’t want to get into the whole “it isn’t you, it’s me” thing.  I read it again and I don’t think my view has changed since college.  I’m sure it has many merits, it just doesn’t resonate or reach me at all, for whatever reason.  I’m not really a poetry guy in the first place, although that has been softening.  The Waste Land doesn’t do anything.  And we’re going to have to leave it at that.

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