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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Daily Diary: The Waste Land

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Today sees me hold a tutorial on The Waste Land. It was hard to know how to set about teaching this in the space of an hour. There is no way we can possibly work through all the allusions, meanings, influences or cultural legacy of this most important (and one of the most complex) of modernist texts. So, instead, I get the students to read against meaning, or as if meaning does not matter - which seems to calm some of their feelings of inferiority at not getting all the allusions to obscure poets and religious writings.

The poem was originally called He Do the Police in Different Voices, but I had asked them to come to the tutorial having listened to Eliot's solitary, thin, affected Queen's English, reading the poem aloud on the Poetry Archive.

I asked them to do an automatic reading exercise, paying less attention to the sense and instead immediately writing down any images, motifs, words or sounds that seem to resonate intuitively, or that seem to recur and echo at different points in the poem. When I do this exercise myself, I pick out: earth, stone, dry, dust, bones, Thames, water, run. Maybe it is simply because I am not coming to The Waste Land as a new reader, but it does seem that certain words or themes, spring out, and fall quite neatly in line with the poem's structural dichotomy between death and fertility.

From Eliot's reading, The Waste Land's affinity to song becomes quite clear. In the Fire Sermon section we focus on, he reads Mrs. Porter and soda water like the troops' marching song it originally was. The "Weialala leia" - which I had always subconsciously associated with the "ulla ulla" of H.G. Wells's apocalyptic aliens - is actually quite lyrical. The final "burning, burning, burning, burning" rises in intensity and volume, until the meaning of the words themselves becomes burnt out, and the pitch alone conveys their fierceness. There are also moments of rhyme and rhythm that are hard to spot given the visual form:
The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
Wide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash
Drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.
  Weialala leia
  Wallala leialala
Read aloud, however, this might almost be rhyming couplets:
The river sweats oil and tar
The barges drift with the turning tide
Red sails wide
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.
The barges wash drifting logs
Down Greenwich reach past the Isle of Dogs.
I argue, deliberately contentiously, that Eliot's legacy can be traced in rock music, where we listen not for sense, but for the sound of words, or for antagonised phrases that seem to emerge from the background noise. The example I use is Radiohead's "Paranoid Android":
That's it sir
You're leaving
The crackle of pigskin
The dust and the screaming
The yuppies networking
The panic, the vomit
The panic, the vomit
God loves his children, God loves his children, yeah!
On more steady, rigorously academic ground, we also discuss the effect of Pound's alterations on the "typist" passage in The Fire Sermon. Pound cuts several stanzas of excellent poetry, scrawling in the margin of Eliot's typescript that the "verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it." I particularly like this one that Eliot cut as a consequence of Pound's intervention:
He munches with the same persistent stare,
He knows his way with women and that's that!
Impertinently tilting back his chair
And dropping cigarette ash on the mat.
The words "impertinently tilting" here almost rock against each other in mimicry of the action, whilst the finality of the "and that's that" and "ash on the mat" rhyme gives it a dramatic, almost conversational cadence. It seems that what Pound particularly objects to is the end-stopped line. In his essay on Imagist poetry, "A Retrospect," he asserts the following: "As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome." He also warns, "Don't chop your stuff into separate iambs Don't make each line stop dead at the end and then begin every next line with a heave."

That is precisely what these lines from Eliot - good poetry though they might be in another context - do for Pound here. What seems to me important, and again trying to engage the students with the poem, is that they belie the possibility that there is anything lazy or random about Eliot's composition. The sprawling, irregular metrical form that we do have is structured that way for a reason, and not simply because Eliot was incapable of writing effective, conventional poetry. It is just that, according to the high modernist aesthetic, what must be rejected is conventional poetry where content is subservient to form.

Pound also seems concerned about Eliot's insertion of "perhaps" or "may" when referring to the feelings of characters, admonishing him: "you Tiresias if you know know damn well or else you don't." He also complains that the original description of the typist's one-room apartment - in which "a touch of art is given by the false/Japanese print, purchased in Oxford Street" - would not have been true "of that lodging house."

In a poem that seems to range widely and uncontrolledly across its subject matter, the cutting of this incidental detail focuses our attention on the poem's internal realism or coherence. Tiresias would see everything, like an omniscient novelist, so he cannot express doubts about characters' mindsets. The typist would not have a cheap print bought in Oxford Street.

At the same time, though, this attention to consistency also reduces the complexity of the characters who are presented. The typist is defined by her professional automatism, and nothing else; there is no sense of her history, or aesthetic taste for Japenese prints that might lift her out of her ordinary and small life. The young man carbuncular is defined by his pimple and not - as was originally the case in the draft - by his future ambitions to become an actor ("perhaps his inclinations touch the stage"), or by affectations to the upper class.

The poem, then, becomes curiously confined by some conventions, even as it seems to break others, such as metrical poetry. It becomes more realistic within the terms of Tiresias, the all-seeing eye, but less roundedly realist in its representations of characters.

The final thing Pound seems to do is to make Eliot's voice less judgemental, and more coldly analytical, a "poetics of impersonality" if you like. The word "abominable," originally used to describe the French of Mr. Eugenides, becomes purely "demotic." The "cheap house agent's clerk," which seems a perjoratively upper-class view of the working man, becomes "a small house agent's clerk," which is merely descriptive.

The effect both of the removal of detailed characterisations, and the impersonal poetic voice, is to equalise all the various other voices and personalities presented in the poem. Without judgement or fleshed out characters, all appear equal. Elizabeth and Leicester are treated with the same equanimity as the typist and the young man carbuncular and consequently the issue of frustrated love, which predominates in "The Fire Sermon," is seen as one inherent to (that overused phrase) the human condition in general. This unwinds the history of poetic canon, whereby the high love of Queens, and their poetic treatment in the Shakespearean poem (here just a "that Shakespearean rag") is a counterpoint to the love of the lower classes, not even worthy of poetic treatment.

So here, as my tutorial class observed, we have another contradiction. This elitist poem, a work of high modernism that seems to expect its readers to have a good classical education behind them is, in its treatment of the characters within it, remarkably democratic.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:26 pm

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