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The Waste Land

April 17, 2014

Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit asked me if I would discuss “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot (when I asked for poems to discuss in my sixth blogoversary post). She said “I lose my focus in this poem every time.” I asked “isn’t it part of the point of “The Waste Land” that you lose your focus? One minute you’re lost in contemplation of the myth of Philomel and the next you’re repeating ‘what is that noise?’”

I thought of that exchange when I read about a piece by Tim Parks entitled “Where I’m Reading From” at So Many Books. Parks is a professional book reviewer, and his piece was originally published at the New York Review of Books Blog. Parks says that professional reviewers should each write “a brief account of how we came to hold the views we do on books.” It’s as if he’s been reading book blogs and discovering how endangered his paying work might be: “It’s now a commonplace that there is no “correct” reading of any book—we all find something different in a novel—yet little is said of particular readers and particular readings, and critics continue to offer interpretations they hope will be authoritative, even definitive.” I think book bloggers have played a part in making this a commonplace.

Although I think that the personal point of view is important, I don’t believe that anyone wants to read a biography first in order to read book reviews second–certainly not mine, and probably not one by a professional reviewer, either. I think that when biography has a place in book reviews, it’s in the context of the ideas the critic is interested in discussing. I often bring up an anecdote from my life to provide a perspective on what I’m reviewing, and occasionally get contrasting anecdotes in the comments, from people who have different perspectives.

Before 1922, when “The Waste Land” was published, educated people (a smaller group then than now) were expected to have read many of the same classical and literary works, and get references to the“Great Books” of western literature. Today, with the expansion of the literary canon to include more works by women and people from a wide variety of countries and cultures, no educated person can read everything. When we read “The Waste Land,” we can recognize that it is full of allusions (especially since the first edition of the poem was published with notes identifying the sources of all the allusions). In the present day, though, the effect of these allusions is to bring to mind bits of stories, the greatest hits of western culture, what Alexander Pope (in the 18th century) called “index-learning.”

The T.S. Eliot who was writing “The Waste Land” almost a hundred years ago worried that if the educated people weren’t required to read from the same list of  Great Books, we would have less ability to think great thoughts, that perhaps the ideas from the books we read would seem unrelated. I think this worry is one reason for the rise of the book blog—the urge to relate what we’ve read and record our ideas about one book so that when we read another, we can remember our previous thoughts about previous books.

Writers periodically mourn the death of form, the rise of free verse, the loss of some literary tradition or other. In “The Waste Land,” without tradition to structure our lives, we break down—in the section called “the game of chess,” the form of the poem breaks down as the speaker explores this idea. Right now, Parks and I (among others) think the 20th-century tradition of the “objective” book reviewer, paid by a newspaper or a magazine to say which books are worth reading and which ones aren’t, is starting to break down, partly because of the difficulty of establishing anything close to an “objective” point of view, and partly because there are simply way too many good books being published.

I don’t know about you, but there aren’t too many people I will pay for their opinions about books, no matter how objective they try to make them. Sometimes, to make a better system, we have to break down the old one, and this is what I see book blogs doing to the tradition of paid reviewers. Instead of trying to be objective and appeal to a large group of readers, we’re trying to acknowledge that reading is subjective and attract a small group of like-minded readers.

We could even think of each book blog as a response like Olaf’s in the ee cummings poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big.” Olaf doesn’t want to be a hero, but in the end he is “more brave than me: more blond than you.” To write down your response to what you’re reading is brave because of the way our responses continue to change as we learn more. It can make a blogger feel ignorant to look back on previous responses. Each one, though, is a piece of how we continue to make sense of our reading and our part in the world.

I like reading “The Waste Land,” in the same way I enjoy reading any very complicated poem–for instance, a 17th-century “metaphysical” poem, because they’re like puzzles, and if you put together enough of their pieces, you can enjoy both the cleverness of the author and your own cleverness. If you get enough of the allusions in “The Waste Land,” you can enjoy Eliot’s cleverness and your own, for recognizing where they come from. If you want to feel especially clever, try a good line-by-line summary of “The Waste Land,” like the one on shmoop. All the detail is interesting, especially that the working title of the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices” after a bit of dialogue from Dickens (Our Mutual Friend) when the widow Betty Higden says of her adopted foundling son Sloppy, “You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.”

In the post-wasteland world, our voices matter. The way we see matters. The reason we’re looking matters. And so I think the details of our individual lives matter when we’re relating them to the books we’re encouraging others to read.

Update: for a contrasting point of view, read today’s post “The great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way” at Wuthering Expectations.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. April 17, 2014 7:14 am

    I’m not sure I’ve had enough coffee yet this morning to be terribly coherent about why I like this post so much. I wanted to pull out a marker and write a giant YES across it in big red letters, but then it was likely to pose trouble for reading successive documents on my computer screen, so I abandoned the plan.

    I love this poem, possibly more than any other, and I’ve never been able to articulate exactly why. I once tried to set it to music, and that process has now become part of the poem for me as well. Sitting on the lawn on the Penn campus on a beautiful summer day in front of the giant statue of a button, surrounded by notebooks of manuscript, I pored through the poem line by line, sketching out ideas, until a professor, who turned out to be an architect, came over to ask me what I was doing. We ended up talking about our favorite poems (he was a fan of John Donne) and other things to read. After our conversation I packed up my sketches and went home and I’m not sure I ever picked it up again. I wasn’t sure how to incorporate the button and the architect and the warm sun,but somehow they’d become part of the poem and the poem had become a part of a summer day and maybe that was it’s proper setting. O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag

    Music permeates this poem, which is, I think, what made me want to set it. But in the end, it turned out not to be a poem about music (I thought everything was about music back then; still do sometimes) but about reading, or maybe unreading. As someone with a lifelong penchant for taking things apart to see how they work, it made me love it more, but I no longer wanted it to sing. I had a twenty-year-old’s love of cleverness, but even then knew that the pieces were far less than their sum. If I couldn’t make the poem bigger, I didn’t want to make it at all.

    I have never heard the story about the former title. I will add it to the drawer that also holds the button and the architect and sketches of unheard tunes. Plenty of room for all.

    • April 17, 2014 10:50 am

      Oh, that’s one of the best things I’ve ever read about The Waste Land–the pieces are far less than their sum.
      And that’s a good story. When I was thinking about the poem, I looked up the Shakespeherian Rag and found that it’s based on That Mysterious Rag, which I suspect you already knew. I listened to it here:

      • April 17, 2014 9:56 pm

        I did know it, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it before. Thanks for the link!

  2. April 17, 2014 9:50 am

    Jeanne, you’ve outdone yourself with this post and I’m so pleased to share it with everyone on the National Poetry Month blog tour. But it’s about so much more than the poems…I love that.

    • April 17, 2014 10:51 am

      The whole piece could be said to be an homage to how the poem can make a person lose her focus.

  3. April 17, 2014 10:20 am

    I guess this is what I have been writing about. I am, like a sucker, still trying to be objective, making an argument, supporting it with evidence, that kind of thing. Is it really so clear that objectivity has so little value? The “difficulty of establishing anything close to an ‘objective’ point of view” is hardly an argument against it. Many difficult things are worth doing.

    My suspicion is that it is the abandonment of objectivity that is likely “to appeal to a large group of readers.” That has appealed etc. See Bookriot for many examples.

    I do not see how you get to the last line. Are you arguing for the presence of personal detail or against the absence of such detail? Nine times out of ten, when I write about a book the entirety of relevant personal detail could be contained in this line: “I checked the book out from the library, read it at home or at work over lunch, and thought it was quite good.”

    • April 17, 2014 10:58 am

      When we talk about this, Tom, it seems to me that you always mention making an argument and supporting it with evidence, as if I don’t do that. It’s true that my purpose here was not to analyze the poem, and often with poems I write pieces I think of as meditations, rather than analysis. Still, I don’t think it’s quite fair to conflate relating a personal relationship to the text with lacking textual evidence.
      I am arguing for the presence of personal detail. I think the reader can matter, although I certainly agree that I don’t want to hear all about the writer and nothing about the poem or book. In its simplest form, what I’m arguing for here is reader-response criticism: where does the reader’s response come from, and what in the text inspires that response?

    • April 17, 2014 11:31 am

      Sorry, I do not mean that you never make an argument, or for that matter that I always do.

      I am trying to understand what you are talking about when you say people are no longer “trying to be objective.” To the extent that you are working through an argument you are trying to be objective. You open yourself to counter-argument in a way that “my experience reminds me of a poem” does not.

      But maybe that is not what you mean – or anyone means. I am trying to move from “objectivity” to something less abstract, to help me think through what the word means. Whatever the subjectivity of how I get to an idea about a book, once I develop it, once I write it out, I have moved into Objective-world, where we can all work on the same problem.

      I do agree that the reader can matter, although I do not think that the reader often matters all that much, not in the sense of understanding a piece of criticism. The Tim Parks piece ends with what is almost a reductio ad absurdum of this idea.

      Do you have a recommendation for some accessible reader-response books or articles? I fear Stanley Fish might be over my head.

      • April 17, 2014 11:50 am

        Oh! Now I see what you mean! Yes, certainly working through an argument is an objective exercise, in that you open yourself to counter-argument. Otherwise it wouldn’t be any fun at all. I’m not interested in the kind of subjective reading that says “I like this book” because who can argue with that (at least without looking like a fool: “no, you don’t like this book”–or worse, “you shouldn’t like this book.”)
        Perhaps because I came to criticism through a childhood immersion in theater, I’ve always been interested in the way a text acts on its audience, and so in order to make an argument about the full experience of enjoying that text, I think a critic should reveal his or her perspective–literally, where he or she is seated. How far away from Lear do I feel on this reading? Have I been closer to him before? With an obstructed view? Splashed by the rain on the stage (once I actually was, at the Folger Theater).
        My reading of reader-response criticism is 25 years in the past, at this point, but as a Writing Center Director, the first place I go for an overview is the Purdue Writing Lab, which has this to say:

      • April 17, 2014 1:01 pm

        Perhaps it is a vocabulary issue, the objective? It seems the conversation is going that way. When I think of something being objective it moves to universality and Truth with a capital “T” and behaves as though there is nothing personal involved in forming an opinion but rather that the conclusion is arrived at through a purely rational almost scientifically empirical way. Something that is impossible when it comes to literature but doesn’t keep some critics from asserting it’s existence.

        • April 17, 2014 1:10 pm

          There is definitely a vocabulary issue. Spending so much time in the 19th century, I may have been captured by the Kant and his predecessors and followers. “I refute it thus,” etc.

          • April 17, 2014 1:51 pm

            Oh, Kant, he makes my head hurt so. I can see the allure though 🙂

  4. April 17, 2014 12:52 pm

    Very much enjoyed your post! The Waste Land is a wonderfully complex poem that I find both delightful and infuriating which only makes me like it more. There is a MOOC at Udemy on Eliot that is very good and half the lectures are about The Waste Land going step-by step through the poem. I agree with your thoughts on objectivity, it is silly to even pretend that it exists. The irony though is that Eliot as a critic was very much focused on the objective and moving as close to it as he could. You will probably be interested in the conversation going on over at Wuthering Expectations at the moment as Tom is writing about Matthew Arnold and criticism.

    • April 17, 2014 12:53 pm

      Ad I see as I was so slow in surreptitiously typing my comment at work Tom has swooped in and made comments of his own!

      • April 17, 2014 1:52 pm

        Yes, I think Tom and I have actually moved closer to understanding how the word “objective” can be useful in modern-day literary criticism. I think what I meant by it in this post is “come and stand over here so you can see this thing as I see it.”
        What Tom is objecting to, I think with good reason, is someone who begins and ends the discussion with the relation of the way she sees the thing. What fun is that? I like his point that when we develop an argument and provide evidence for it, we are working in a more “objective-world,” where other people can come in and work on the same problem.

  5. April 18, 2014 8:46 am

    There’s a line in Cold Comfort Farm where Flora thinks that one of the disadvantages of universal education is that all sorts of people are familiar with your favorite authors. I think there’s something to that: when the pool of available books expands, you lose the feeling that Eliot was so fond of, that all books are in perpetual conversation with each other. (Not that they aren’t anymore, necessarily, but it’s a much bigger dinner party, and you can’t depend on any one book having happened to strike up a conversation with any of the others.) But you get back some amount of tribal feeling about books, which is to me a very pleasing thing about book blogs.

    Anyway. Lovely post.

    • April 18, 2014 9:01 am

      That is a great metaphor. I’m enjoying thinking of the Great Books having a very civilized dinner party with each other, while outside that room the books that haven’t been properly introduced are eyeing each other suspiciously and preparing to take up arms because there will inevitably be an insult over a cultural misunderstanding.

  6. rmaitzen permalink
    April 18, 2014 10:16 am

    Somewhat belated here, but this is an excellent post, and the exchanges between you and Tom externalize so many internal debates I have about what I want from criticism I read, not to mention what I want to do when I write criticism myself. “When biography has a place in book reviews, it’s in the context of the ideas the critic is interested in discussing”: this certainly sounds like the priorities I would have, except in the rare case that the biography itself is either exceptionally interesting or exceptionally well written.

    I have never read The Wasteland. I don’t think this is a “Humiliation” winner, but maybe it is! I am intimidated by it. Have you explored the iPad app that Faber produced? I don’t have it yet but it looks amazing — and useful as a way to experience the poem.

    • April 20, 2014 9:30 pm

      Reading “The Waste Land” on an ipad with that app looks like it would really make the poem come alive, because the footnotes and allusions and context could flood in with more immediacy than they do in print.
      Oddly, I’m not a big fan of biography in general.

  7. April 18, 2014 11:50 am

    I love your thoughts in this post. I struggled with The Waste Land, but there’s so much about it that I didn’t think about in the right context. I also never thought about the fact that maybe you’re supposed to be a bit confused. I think the way book blogging has affected paid reviewing is interesting as well. I think they are very different. As a blogger I’m not talking about the literary merits of a book, I’m talking about my own experience with it. Such a great post.

    • April 20, 2014 9:32 pm

      I think trying to talk about “literary merits” can be distancing, for many readers. Blog writing tends to be consciously inclusive, which is one of the things I like about it.

  8. April 24, 2014 8:32 am

    An excellent post, Jeanne. A few things struck me in particular: “I think that when biography has a place in book reviews, it’s in the context of the ideas the critic is interested in discussing.” I agree, even though I know I don’t apply it myself (it’s hard to get the balance right between relating and over-sharing). A biography out of that specific context would take a very long time to read, not to mention write, and you can learn enough about the reviewer in time through reading the reviews and their book choices. I think it’s sad that reviews in papers are on their way out, because it leads to less discussion in offline media in general, but it’s definitely good that we now have a range of voices and more viewpoints. Now I’ll go and read The Waste Land because I’ve not heard of it before.

    • April 24, 2014 8:41 am

      Glad I’ve introduced you to a new pleasure!
      I don’t worry about over-sharing; I figure it’s like deleting your e-mail. If you don’t want to read it, that’s within your power.

  9. April 24, 2014 5:00 pm

    I love this. And it rather makes me want to go read The Wasteland, which I’ve never done.


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