In honor of the 100th anniversary of the publication of “The Waste Land,” we invited four writers and academics—Beci Carver, Jahan Ramazani, Robert Crawford, and David Barnes—to discuss the importance, context, artistry, and legacy of the poem.
Can you tell us a bit about your personal experience of reading the poem. How did you first encounter it, and what do you remember about that encounter?
Beci Carver: I had climbed through my college boyfriend’s open window and found Eliot on his shelf, where I knew he would be. I’d become used to staring at the book, alongside a gorgeous bright green copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, a thick white edition of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, William Carlos Williams’s Selected Poems, and the complete Alexander Pope. My boyfriend was known at uni for his long silences and aloofness, and my way of reading him was to read his books.
He was away for the weekend at home when I discovered Eliot, and I remember being hooked by the first lines, as though they were addressed to me. The line: ‘(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)’, with its beckoning brackets, seemed even more intimate, ironically enough, since I was reading it in the hope of reaching someone doubly absent. (As I write this, Eliot is peering at me beadily from under the handle of his umbrella, on the cover of John Haffenden’s newest installment of his letters).
Jahan Ramazani: Like many adolescents, I saw myself in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when I first read it in high school—the paralyzing self-consciousness, the anxieties about sex and the social world. For an Iranian American kid growing up in the rural South, the poem’s divided self was strangely recognizable. In college, I read The Waste Land through the lens of Prufrockian angst: the fragmentation and disorder were surely symptomatic of the poet’s own fear, alienation, and paralyzing self-scrutiny, however much the poem seemed to universalize such feelings as a civilizational disorder. Because a straight line seemed to run from the despair and nihilism of The Waste Land to Eliot’s religious conversion, my preference then was for Wallace Stevens’s humanistic, late Romantic celebration of the imaginative power to shape and create our worlds.
Looking at the yellowing notes I took during college lectures in the late 1970s, I now realize that my preference for Stevens, shaped by a professor who studied with Harold Bloom and another who admired him, reflected a time when Stevens was ascendant in the American academy, while concerns about Eliot’s sexism, elitism, and anti-Semitism were on the rise. (Stevens’s problematic views on race mostly came into focus later.) Still, even in my teens, already a devotee of Cubism and a jazz deejay at a local radio station, I loved the multiple perspectives, riotous heterogeneity, and discordant energies of The Waste Land.
Robert Crawford: I bought The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot in John Smith’s bookshop, St Vincent Street, Glasgow, in 1974 when I was fifteen. The poem that made most impression on me was ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, but really all the poems made a huge impression: not because I understood them, but because of their distinctive soundscapes. In a funny way, I can barely remember not having read The Waste Land. Its jaggedness and incorporation of animal cries and nursery rhyme as well as what then seemed to me incomprehensible stuff wowed me—and still does. It’s such a singular acoustic. My favourite passage is the part of section V that precedes the water-dripping song of the thrush. The way Eliot is able to bring to bear such a weight of meaning and emotion on those monosyllables ‘Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop’ (which I read aloud as ‘‘Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop ’) and then snatch everything away again in the following line is just breathtaking.
David Barnes: I first read The Waste Land when I was seventeen, or possibly eighteen. It wasn’t on the school syllabus, but I remember being encouraged to read it by a sympathetic teacher. In part it was because I started to feel drawn towards different kinds of avant-garde writing (I was reading Beckett and Kafka and responded to the bleak and angsty landscapes of those writers).
It was also, I think, designed to help us have something interesting to say as we applied to university—admissions tutors would be impressed by it. Reading it was a strange experience: it simultaneously felt completely impenetrable and incredibly fresh and exciting. I didn’t understand a word of it. But that didn’t seem to matter—it didn’t feel difficult to read, as Eliot is sometimes assumed to be. The only thing I could compare it with was the electronic music and sample culture that I’d grown to love in the late 1990s. DJ Shadow’s album Endtroducing had come out a year or two before I read The Waste Land. This was an album that began with a snippet of a public information record distributed to schools by Chevron/Standard Oil before segueing into a hippyish 1970s monologue about the signs of the zodiac.
Throughout the album, different pieces of seemingly random dialogue were cut, chopped up, scratched and fed into the music, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes dissonantly. The Waste Land was like that. It didn’t matter what anything meant, but it sounded great, as if Eliot had shed his pinstriped waistcoat and taken to the turntables as DJ.
How has The Waste Land shaped the world of literature and culture as we know it today?
Beci Carver: Rereading Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 a year ago I was struck by Eliot’s sudden appearance in a novel I’ve always assumed had nothing to do with him. Heller’s Colonel Cargill is composing a so-called ‘homiletic memorandum’ for the men in his regiment, and declares over the phone to the officer recording his words: “Any fool can make money these days and most of them do. But what about people with talent and brains? Name, for example, one poet who makes money.” The officer, without identifying himself, responds crisply: “T.S. Eliot,” and slams down the phone, leaving Cargill and his superior, General Peckem, to wonder what he means: “That’s all he said. Just ‘T. S. Eliot.’” A joke then unfolds about the obscurity of the name “T.S. Eliot” to the philistine soldiers, who suspect they are dealing with a ‘new code.’ But this joke wouldn’t work if it were not the case that, to readers of the novel in 1961, ‘Just T. S. Eliot’ was enough to suggest a poet who made money from his poems.
Not only that, the name “Eliot”—I would argue—is expected here to suggest the experience of hearing an unidentified, bodiless, mysterious, and staccato speaker utter a single phrase. Readers of Heller’s Catch-22 are expected to have read the drifting chorus of voices that The Waste Land is. I was reminded of a brilliant essay of 1987 by Hugh Kenner about the poem’s invocation of the telephonic human voice with no body. I wondered whether Kenner had been inspired by Heller to read Eliot as he did.
This set of discoveries persuaded me that Eliot was: 1, famous (or at least had been in 1961), 2: famous in his capacity as someone who could be a poet for a living, 3: capable of being recognised on the basis of a poetic effect he had trademarked. It’s hard to think of another poet about whom these claims could be made. But something else worth mentioning is that Catch-22’s consciousness of Eliot is subterranean to it, up until this point in the narrative, and comes to the surface only when a joke makes room for it. My feeling is that Eliot has become, by now, as W.H. Auden writes of Freud, “a whole climate of opinion.” William Empson once wrote that he felt he couldn’t disentangle his own thoughts from those of Eliot, as though he had been so deeply influenced by him as to lose sight of him.
Jahan Ramazani: By the middle of the twentieth century, The Waste Land, as my coeditors and I say of Eliot’s work in our headnote in The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, “was translated into many languages, and for decades the latest verses in Arabic, Swahili, or Japanese were far more likely to sound like Eliot than like earlier poets in those languages or like other poet’s in English. Eliot’s eminence became a hazard to poets such as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, who felt that their fundamental aesthetic problem was not to write like him.” The essays in the book The International Reception of T. S. Eliot (2007) trace these influences in France, Germany, Romania, Israel, India, Italy, Spain, China, Japan, and elsewhere.
In the anglophone world, it’s fascinating to consider the impact of The Waste Land on poets with political and cultural views diametrically opposed to Eliot’s, many from diverse backgrounds. The poem’s afterlife demonstrates not just “the anxiety of influence,” in Harold Bloom’s phrase, but the irony of influence. The Jewish objectivist poet Louis Zukofsky’s “Poem Beginning The,” written in the 1920s, adapts Eliot’s techniques of extensive quotation, collage, fragmentation, difficulty, and self-referentiality, playfully incorporating Jewish folk song and translations from Yiddish poetry, alongside high-cultural references, while responding optimistically to the recent Russian revolution. Eliot and anti-Eliot at the same time!
Disseminated by the British Council during the Cold War, Eliot was formative for the two most influential African Caribbean poets writing in English, Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott. Brathwaite, who championed African survivals once suppressed in the Caribbean, knew Eliot’s poem by heart, echoed it repeatedly, and credited the older poet’s example with helping him bring Caribbean speech rhythms into his own poetry.
That is, a revolutionary Black poet seized on tools in the work of an Anglo-Catholic white guy with royalist, racist, elitist views. Like Eliot’s Waste Land, Brathwaite’s poetry shifts abruptly in speaker and tone, incorporates jazz and other musical forms, fuses overlapping characters, bridges lyric despair and epic collectivity, and tries to recompose a usable inheritance out of the shards of the cultural past. Similarly, in one of the most powerful African American poems mourning the transatlantic slave trade, Robert Hayden borrows from The Waste Land: he, too, animates various voices, including those of slavers, and collages diverse forms, such as hymns, prayers, diaries, and legal depositions, to give expression to the horror, brutality, and enormity of the Middle Passage.
Brathwaite… credited the older poet’s example with helping him bring Caribbean speech rhythms into his own poetry. That is, a revolutionary Black poet seized on tools in the work of an Anglo-Catholic white guy with royalist, racist, elitist views.
A poet who grew up in a Muslim household in Kashmir and wrote his dissertation on Eliot, Agha Shahid Ali also draws on the self-referentiality, juxtapositions, syncretism, and what he calls the “sense of loss and desolation” in The Waste Land, akin to the melancholy of Urdu poetry. A hyphenated Kashmiri-American poet, Ali had a profound sense of displacement that reminds us of Eliot’s multiple displacements.
Having once been, Eliot suggested, an American southerner living in the North and northerner living in the South, he “was never anything anywhere” and “therefore felt himself to be more a Frenchman than an American and more an Englishman than a Frenchman.” Poets have often drawn on Eliot’s example to give utterance to their fractured, displaced, transnational experience. Poetry is a particularly rich medium for recording such complexities.
I should also mention that the Eliot scholar Anthony Cuda is writing an exciting book about how Eliot shaped the work of poets such as Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell, Seamus Heaney, and Louise Glück.
Robert Crawford: Though I do understand why people often see—and hear—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as inventing modern poetry in English, I think The Waste Land does so more comprehensively. It’s as if this poem can give anything—a cry, a list of place-names, a snatch of conversation, a Sanskrit word, a nursery rhyme, an echo—an almost infinite and carrying resonance that brings with it unforgettable intensity. Ezra Pound who, prior to editing The Waste Land, had just been editing an English translation of an avant-garde collage-style French poem by Jean Cocteau, helped give the poem its intensity; but the words were Eliot’s.
As I’ve argued in Young Eliot, Pound’s editing was highly ethical in that he did not add or substitute words of his own; he just honed what Eliot had written. Eliot had learned from Pound’s bricolage style, but where Pound went on to go on and on and on, Eliot (with Pound’s editorial help) learned as a young poet just when to stop. That’s a great gift. So the poem exemplifies at once the way in which poetry can incorporate all kinds of diverse materials; yet it also constitutes a supreme example of poetic intensity. It’s quite a combination—and one from which innumerable poets (from Auden to Xu Zhimo and from MacDiarmid to Okigbo and beyond) have learned.
David Barnes: Basil Bunting famously compared Ezra Pound’s Cantos to the Alps: a poet ‘would have to go a long way around’ if they wanted to avoid them. I don’t know if The Waste Land is quite like that. Certainly, poetry was not the same after The Waste Land; at the same time, it’s perhaps more difficult to trace the influence of the poem than it is with Pound’s experimentations. In some ways, it’s quite difficult to go forward after The Waste Land, as it’s a poem that seems to have said it all. I sometimes wonder if The Waste Land hasn’t had more of an influence on the modern novel.
Evelyn Waugh named A Handful of Dust (1934) after a line from the poem, of course; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) contains a number of conscious echoes of The Waste Land in its descriptions of the New York cityscape. And in post-war writers, that influence continued: Sam Selvon’s novel of alienated Caribbean immigrants, The Lonely Londoners (1956) begins with a description of the foggy “unrealness” of the London scene.
Jeanette Winterson’s novels are steeped in quotations from Eliot. The Waste Land has seeped into culture as a moving set of referents to describe urban alienation, fracture, cultural collapse. It also has a striking ability, inherent in its form I suppose, to speak across cultures. Jahan mentioned the impact of the text on Caribbean poets like Walcott and Braithwaite; and although it’s a poem focused on London, the apex of political and economic power, its language and structure seem also to destabilise, decentre.
What do contemporary writers—poets especially—owe to The Waste Land? Do you think the landscape of writing today would be very different were it not for the poem?
Beci Carver: Without being able to prove it but knowing it to be true, I would say that the availability of The Waste Land as a model has made it possible for poets ever since 1922 to demand more of their readers than they would have dreamt of doing before. Eliot liked difficulty, and one of his gifts to other poets was to make difficulty feasible for them. I would go so far as to say that every fridge magnet poetry kit put to the service of mad compositions owes its humor to Eliot.
But there are unflattering stories that need to be told about Eliot’s influence too, especially in light of what we now know about his toxic prejudices. When quotes revealing the extent of Eliot’s anti-Semitism started to float from Robert Crawford’s biography to Twitter’s limelight, I opened WhatsApp to find a flood of angry eloquence from my Jewish ex-girlfriend, who couldn’t believe what she was reading. Haffenden in his introduction to the new volume of letters explains that Eliot’s anti-Semitism belongs to a larger theory of literary culture premised upon national insularity.
In other words it wasn’t so much that Eliot hated any particular ethnic or ethno-religious group but that his adoptive English nativism made him generally suspicious of newcomers. I find this argument at once plausible and deeply alarming, and as a long-term admirer of Eliot, I wish I could disprove it. In his capacity as an insular English nationalist, Eliot may, to a degree, be held responsible for embedding British imperialist values in the literary canon, and even for inventing the literary canon as a phenomenon. It is partly because we are still, a hundred years on, reading the books Eliot told us to read, that, as Jed Esty argues in his dazzling little polemic, The Future of Decline, we are going to have to rethink literary history from scratch.
But at the same time that we know Eliot to have espoused a conservative view of literary tradition, it can be hard to see The Waste Land as an especially conservative text. When Donald Davie in 1957 started to worry that English literature risked becoming “parochial” after the fall of the British Empire, the poet that came to mind for him as an English nativist was Robert Graves, who went out of his way to magpie Anglo-Saxon words. For Davie, Eliot’s multilingualism in The Waste Land meant that English was losing its privileged status as the language everyone spoke, and that, in order to be relevant, ambitious modern poetry needed to open its arms to the world.
Jahan Ramazani: The Forward Prize-winning poet Daljit Nagra told me he used to drive around London listening to Eliot on his car’s audio system. Growing up in a Punjabi household in London, he was astonished in school to see a white, canonical, “English” poet repeatedly using the Sanskrit word “shantih,” a word often on the lips of family members, including a Sikh grandfather who chanted it daily in meditation. For Nagra, as for some other poets with roots in non-Western parts of the world, Eliot’s use of Indian cultural materials seems an important opening to a more global poetics.
Drawing on Eliot’s example, Nagra delights in throwing Punjabi up against English diction, song lyrics against writerly texts, spirited vernacular up against high art. Eliot’s poem helped create a juxtapositional, cross-cultural set of structures that have been useful for postcolonial and BAME writers trying to mediate between different aspects of their own hybrid, in-between experience. Written during an earlier phase of globalization, the poem’s multilingual, globe-straddling example has been valuable for poets of an even more globalized twenty-first century.
I’ll comment on the poem’s relevance to contemporary poets writing about climate change in response to the final question.
Robert Crawford: The poem is such a key landmark that all modern poets know it, whether they swerve around it, crash into it, or attempt to assimilate it. It’s become as unignorable as Shakespeare. As someone who writes poetry as well as biography and criticism, I have “skin in the game,” and so there’s a danger that I skew things too much in my own interest, but let’s just say that a poem whose three-word title is “The Waste Land” is bound to resonate widely in an era which fears environmental degradation.
Again, a poem which engages so courageously and adventurously with fears of mental and emotional collapse and (however bleakly) with sex and longing is never likely to lose its relevance. I think Jahan’s recent lecture on “Burying the Dead: The Waste Land, Eco-Critique and World Elegy,” which I was lucky enough to hear in London at the International T. S. Eliot Summer School, and which, I gather, is available to read free in volume 4 of the T. S. Eliot Studies Annual, is the most brilliant recent piece of Eliot criticism. It shows strikingly just how relevant the poem is to a great range of contemporary poets.
David Barnes: I think it’s had a vast influence. It’s also, along with Joyce’s Ulysses, become one of the flagship texts of modernism, a kind of gateway into the avant-garde. There are lots of other long experimental poems that are interesting. I should mention Hope Mirrlees’s Paris, published three years before The Waste Land, and a similar kaleidoscope of voices and references. In terms of contemporary poets, I think a poem like Alice Oswald’s Dart (2002) probably couldn’t exist without The Waste Land. Dart, following a river as it flows through rural Devon, presents a very different kind of setting to The Waste Land. Yet those strange haunting voices across the river, ghosts, past echoes and repeating refrains feel very Eliotic to me.
Eliot’s poem came out of a period of intense mental anguish; Eliot wrote the poem in recovery from severe stress and anxiety. How can you see that experience reflected in the poem?
Beci Carver: When I published my first piece on The Waste Land over a decade ago I was convinced it was about moving house in the throes of a property market crisis, and remember finding it desperately significant that the only furnished room in the text had a draught. A decade later, I argued in another piece that what Eliot was really worried about was the rise of finance capitalism; I decided that for all his cultural conservatism, he was a socialist in his economic thinking.
But then, this July at the Eliot International Summer School in London, Megan Quigley gave a brilliant paper on the burnt half of Eliot’s correspondence with his secret American lover Emily Hale and I began to see bits of love letters everywhere in the poem’s sighs and ellipses. The truth is that, like any full life, Eliot’s in the late 1910s and early 1920s was dense with a hundred sadnesses, and because of the poem’s rare ore-like ability to absorb everything around it, we will always keep finding more meaning in its words and silences.
Robert Crawford: Well, only part of the poem was written while in recovery. Much of it was written while Eliot was in the midst of stress and anxiety. In fact, a few of the earliest fragments (if we believe Valerie Eliot, as I’m inclined to do) may date from his time as a graduate student in America. So the poem accrues over a substantial number of years, and is spliced together. It’s as if Eliot has been saving up poems and bits of poems in a secret drawer, waiting for them to coalesce.
That’s the way quite a lot of poets operate, and it’s certainly the way Eliot worked throughout much of his writing life. With the release of the Hale letters, we can appreciate more fully the poem’s emotional roots and freight. We can realise how, amongst other things, The Waste Land is a love poem, but a poem of love gone terribly, hurtfully wrong. Eliot’s wish to sunder poetry from biography was a way of trying to protect himself even as he exposed his deepest emotions in complex and piercing verse. Something remarkable is the way he was able to articulate his sense of anguish while in the midst of situations that threatened to break him (and even did break him, in some ways).
The poem accrues over a substantial number of years, and is spliced together. It’s as if Eliot has been saving up poems and bits of poems in a secret drawer, waiting for them to coalesce.
Astonishingly, that ability is there in so much of his later work too—in “The Hollow Men” and “Ash-Wednesday,” for instance. And it may be exemplified by the way he is able to write the later Quartets while having to deal with the day-to-day threat of death as a result of saturation bombing. If he had seen much of St Louis destroyed by a cyclone when he was eight, and had imagined London falling around him in The Waste Land, then later in his life he would become the greatest poet of World War II while living through the London Blitz.
David Barnes: I’ve come to see the poem as more specific and less universal the more I’ve read it. I don’t mean that it doesn’t have a universal appeal – but I think that’s more to do with the way that the sounds and textures of the poem work, rather than any part of its content. Part of that is recognising the ways in which the poem comes out of a particular moment of stress and anxiety for Eliot, and the ways in which the psychological treatment he underwent with Roger Vittoz impacted the development of the poem.
At the same time, the poem comes out of a specific political context. Eliot was working with Lloyd’s Bank in London on the way that war debt should be distributed, and worrying about the political landscape of post-war Europe. If you read the drafts of the poem, you also note a disturbing antipathy to humanity, manifesting in a kind of disgust with the urban crowd. Words like ‘swarming’ and ‘crawling’ feature, and we know Eliot was interested in eugenicist ideas (overlapping with the anti-Semitism and misogyny that is now, rightly, a large part of the critical debate on Eliot).
Individual lines from the poem—“April is the cruellest month,” “a handful of dust” etc.—are instantly memorable, and have become embedded in our collective cultural consciousness. Why is this, do you think?
Beci Carver: I wonder whether the memorability of that first line has something to do with the famous radio recording of Eliot reading The Waste Land in which “cruellest” absorbs all the quirks of his Anglicized American accent. But what seems most strange to me about these phrases and others we tend to remember is that they aren’t in themselves especially distinctive or beautiful—though there are plenty of distinctive and beautiful phrases in the poem we could have memorized instead. The other day I bumped into the phrase ‘handful of dust’ in Conrad and wondered why I’d never noticed it before. How is it that Eliot can make you remember phrases with no beauty in them, that aren’t even his?
I’m conscious that this isn’t to answer the question but to complicate it. One answer could be that the very non-distinctiveness of some of Eliot’s phrases opens them to outside projection, so that we can find whatever we want in them and believe they belong to almost anyone. Lots of The Waste Land is echoed from other places and we could say that the poem’s reliance on theft gives certain of its lines a quality of innate stollenness, as though they may never be owned. Years ago I wondered why the novel Evelyn Waugh wrote about his divorce from Evelyn Gardner was called A Handful of Dust, although there are no other obvious references to Eliot in the book—and nor is Waugh in any obvious way a modernist writer.
I eventually decided that Waugh must be quietly referring to the tiny son of Tony and Brenda Last whose handful of life is tragically lost at the beginning of the novel, and it struck me as a lovely paradox that, at the same time that that phrase is by its nature so open-ended, Waugh’s split-second elegy in the title lets it mean something particular and tender.
Lots of The Waste Land is echoed from other places and we could say that the poem’s reliance on theft gives certain of its lines a quality of innate stollenness, as though they may never be owned.
Jahan Ramazani: According to Eliot, “all art emulates the condition of ritual. That is what it comes from and to that it must always return for nourishment.” Poetic forms are rooted in ritualistic repetitions and rhythms, although Eliot often fragments and suspends those patterns. He remarks that “the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse.”
In The Waste Land, pentameter, ballad meter, popular song, prayer, and other rhythmical forms often lurk. Eliot also interweaves rhyme and other sonic repetitions through his unrhymed verse. One of the reasons his lines and phrases are memorable is that they are nourished by the underlying ritualism—repetition, cadence, music—of literary and cultural traditions, even as he deforms and decontextualizes them, almost beyond recognition.
Robert Crawford: It’s his ear. He simply has such a precisely calibrated sense of the acoustics of language. And he has the intellectual capacity to articulate it too. His explanation (in his 1932-33 Harvard lectures) of how the “auditory imagination” works, fusing the most ancient with the contemporary, is one of the best explanations of how great poetry operates.
And not long before The Waste Land he writes that manifesto essay (really a book review) “The Metaphysical Poets.” That piece makes it clear that precisely what Samuel Johnson detested in Donne and Metaphysical poetry—that sense of “heretogeneous ideas… yoked by violence together”—is precisely what Eliot loves; and it’s what makes The Waste Land sing. It works at the level of image, phrase, verse paragraph, and emotion: “April” and “cruellest month” do not go together, so when they are yoked together by a certain intellectual, emotional, and verbal violence, we register the shock.
David Barnes: The Waste Land has a loose iambic metre, and its musicality is something that makes its phrases memorable. At the same time, it’s also the sense that the diverse voices that call out from the poem demand a particular kind of attention (Eliot’s original title was “He do the police in different voices”). It’s as if they were different characters grabbing us by the arm to talk to us: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” “What are you thinking?,” “Stetson!”
In this sense, The Waste Land unfolds, each new time we read it, a bit like a theatrical performance (the poem has various references to dramatic works). It has, without overstressing the point, a kind of multi-sensory quality. In the therapy Eliot underwent with Vittoz, he would have been asked to concentrate on particular words, or objects, and it feels that we as readers are also being asked to concentrate.
There are lots of different and seemingly competing fragments in The Waste Land: high culture and literature, religion, ragtime jazz, gramophones, tinned food, garbage, music hall, a London pub. How do we begin to make sense of all of this?
Beci Carver: About a week ago, I heard Matthew Bevis give a talk on lyric poetry, all about how poems written in the drifting, song-like, intimate way The Waste Land is can suggest ‘the nascency of the actual.’ I think this phrase beautifully captures how events in poems can seem to come into existence as you’re reading, and I think what makes The Waste Land’s mad mixture of everyday ephemera—jazz, tins, divans, etc.—so arresting is exactly this effect of watching each one come from nowhere, out of the blue.
Eliot likes lists I think because, at our end, reading them is a little like watching a magician pull a string of colored scarves from her sleeve: we never know what will come next. There’s a sentence in the poem I always have to read in three ways at once: “The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends / Or other testimony of summer nights,” because the first time I read it I see the bottles etc, the second time I tell myself they aren’t there, and the third I have to juggle my knowledge that they aren’t there with the fact that I can still see them.
Eliot plays another trick with the “silk handkerchiefs”—i.e. condoms, since that’s what the phrase would have meant to his first readers. The word “silk” is an anomaly among the rubbish until we recognise the slang, so it loses the anomaly status that makes it stand out just before the whole list vanishes. The condoms disappear twice.
Jahan Ramazani: Isn’t that the modern urban world? Isn’t the poem the closest a poet could get a hundred years ago to the mad heterogeneity we now experience on the Internet? Yet many of Eliot’s anglophone contemporaries hadn’t yet opened their poetry to modernity’s strange collisions of high and low, beauty and ugliness, the foul debris of waste and the flowers of romantic longing. Drawing on French symbolist examples and his own experience, Eliot did. Eliot scholar Frances Dickey is writing a fascinating book about the sensory experiences of urban life, including the sounds, odors, and sights of St. Louis, as imprinted on Eliot and transmogrified in his poetry.
Eliot’s famous words about Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” also illuminate The Waste Land: both works seem “to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music.” That’s one of the qualities that makes his poetry feel strangely alive and vibrant today.
Isn’t the poem the closest a poet could get a hundred years ago to the mad heterogeneity we now experience on the Internet?
Robert Crawford: We make sense of it all by listening, and by realising how much the poem is stretching our hearing, our feeling, and our comprehension. Reading it is like having to cross a very busy major road. You need to be very alert to dodge the traffic; but there’s a certain pleasure in doing so, and becoming conscious of some of the manoeuvres involved. If people struggle with the poem, it’s often because they think it’s a sort of cerebral crossword, and that spending hours in a library will let them come up with the solution, The Answer.
Well, it is a poem of great intellectual ambition; but the best thing to do is to read it aloud, even struggling with the bits in unfamiliar tongues, and to trust your intuition. In my experience, most people intuit that there is deep, and deeply disturbed emotion in the poem—and it’s the emotion that moves the reader as much as (and, I suspect, more than) the intellectual reach.
I’m very lucky in being the first Eliot biographer to be able to have access to his huge and passionate correspondence with Emily Hale, the woman who (as far as Eliot’s poetry is concerned) was the love of his life. And I’m convinced that knowing more about his emotional life—which I’ve set out particularly in Eliot After The Waste Land—encourages us to trust our intuition that Eliot’s is a powerfully emotional poetry. The women in his life registered that, and knew there was a cost.
David Barnes: I’m still grappling with this question. Eliot was reading the extracts of Ulysses in The Little Review before he wrote The Waste Land, and there may have been a sense in which he was inspired by Joyce’s method, undercutting the usual distinctions between “high” and “low” culture, and putting everything in to his text. I say everything, and of course that’s not quite true of course; but both writers were engaged in trying to represent a wide cross-section of urban life.
Both writers use myth to cut a way through these landscapes—indeed Eliot said, in his essay on Ulysses, that myth presented a device for ordering “the vast panorama of futility and anarchy” of modern life. I think Eliot was striving for a method that could include all the things in life he noticed, which weren’t necessarily the usual subjects of poetry. On the other hand, it is a “waste” land, after all, and it could be that Eliot is drawing on the idea of waste, bringing our attention to the things that are discarded by society. In that sense it is—or could be—a fairly conservative critique of contemporary culture as cheapened and disposable. And you can’t avoid the fact that the poem’s voice can at times feel condescending and snobbish, as in the passage about the typist and the “young man carbuncular.”
The Waste Land emerged in a post-war context of economic uncertainty, conflict, political fragmentation. How does The Waste Land speak to our own uncertain age?
Beci Carver: In my view it would be a bad thing if we were to respond to the current welter of crises as Eliot did, turning ourselves into insular nationalists mourning the loss of a nebulous tradition. I probably differ from most of the members of this roundtable in spending a substantial portion of my time in the classroom with students for whom Eliot is still a novelty.
A couple of years ago, my colleagues and I decided to remove Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from our modernism module on the grounds that, in the lightning flash of a term-time week, we could not adequately contextualize its racism, and when I was a uni student in the 2000s our wonderful supervisor Santanu Das introduced us to The Waste Land alongside Anthony Julius’s T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. On a pedagogical level at least, I don’t think we can afford to present Eliot as someone who had appropriate answers to give to modernity’s problems.
But one good thing that The Waste Land may incentivize us to do in 2022 is to find a language perfectly suited to the present in which to describe the present’s concerns. There were plenty of poets in 1922 who continued to churn out the kinds of poems they had always written. But Eliot chose to speak to his moment. Better than that, he made words written thousands of years ago sound like coinages of his poem, so that reading The Waste Land now we hear its words as modern.
Jahan Ramazani: A poem that begins with a section titled “The Burial of the Dead,” The Waste Land speaks powerfully, I argue in a recent essay, to the planetary grief and apocalyptic dread that characterize our era of climate change. If we take seriously Eliot’s theory of literary change—that today’s literature is “altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past”—The Waste Land is effectively becoming a different poem in the time of the Great Acceleration.
Though sometimes read as mourning the war dead or Eliot’s father or his marriage or Western civilization, the poem increasingly seems like a lament for all the above and more—even the world itself. Newly resonant in our moment are the poem’s desertified, rocky landscape, its unburied corpses, its polluted air, its “dry sterile thunder without rain,” its rivers sunken or sweating oil and tar or strewn with garbage, its accusation of the culpable reader, its diffused sense of catastrophe on a global scale, and its refusal to pretend that the losses it mourns can be redeemed.
Contemporary poets responding to climate change often echo the language and forms of The Waste Land, a paradigmatic poem of world-encompassing, apocalyptic mourning. Jorie Graham repurposes Eliot’s repurposing of Shakespeare’s “sea change” for the more literal sea changes brought by melting ice caps. John Powell Ward recycles apocalyptic language from The Waste Land in his poem “Hurry Up Please, It’s Time,” enumerating individual efforts to stave off climate apocalypse and salvage humanity. Echoing Eliot’s list of fallen and doomed civilizations, Lavinia Greenlaw recites the names of cities at risk of being obliterated by sea level rise, “Calcutta, Tokyo, San Francisco, / Venice, Amsterdam, Baku, / Alexandria, Santo Domingo.”
Adapting strategies from The Waste Land to angrily grieve the effects of climate change, Peter Reading collages scientific report, journalism, the ubi sunt tradition, autobiography, and prophetic invective, while surveying the future of the planet. Simon Armitage transforms the biblical story of Noah’s ark into a warning about climate change, borrowing from The Waste Land the collapsing of boundaries between song and text, winter and spring, the Caimans and Antarctica. In one of a series of climate poems, Patience Agbabi redeploys the space-shifting freedom of Eliot’s poem, leaping back and forth between an air flight and the effects below of fossil-fuel emissions on the flood-ravaged Nepalese landscape.
In a brilliant unpublished poem, “The West Land,” Scottish poet and Eliot biographer Robert Crawford resituates The Waste Land in the scorched and burning landscape of a dystopian Australia. Because Eliot devises poetic equipment for traversing enormous distances in space and in time, The Waste Land provides contemporary poets with the means to grapple with and mourn the vast geophysical changes ravaging our planet.
Robert Crawford: Yes, I agree with Jahan. It’s the sense of a land laid waste that resonates with us now in a way that may be disconcertingly different to the impact that the poem had on readers in 1922. Also it’s the uncanny registering of acute mental and emotional distress. The Waste Land, first published in highbrow little magazines and (in book form) by avant-garde presses (in England by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1923), was a very elite poem when it came out—a poem that an Oxford student toff would declaim through a megaphone as a way of showing off.
Yet over the decades its uncanny grip has been felt by more and more people across a range of cultures, classes, races, genders on every continent. Eliot may have been an intellectual elitist, a self-confessed snob, and at times a cutting and cruel man with antisemitic and racist streaks who could exploit women; but (as well as being, e.g., a brilliant publisher, critic, children’s writer, successful dramatist, public intellectual, and poet) he was also a human being who registered deep hurt, love, longing, and spiritual hunger.
In other words, like it or not, he was like most of us. What made him exceptional was the way he could so memorably articulate what are common human experiences, and give them a new, sharper figuration in words that go on ringing and are unlikely to fall silent. Particularly since the release of the Hale letters, we can understand him anew. And that process has a long way to run!
Eliot may have been an intellectual elitist, a self-confessed snob, and at times a cutting and cruel man with antisemitic and racist streaks who could exploit women; but he was also a human being who registered deep hurt, love, longing, and spiritual hunger.
David Barnes: There is a sense of collapse or doom in The Waste Land—those “falling towers,” the feeling of ruin and fragmentation that pervades the poem. Eliot was animated both by his own personal stresses and anxieties, and by wider fears for society. Through his work at the bank he was getting an inside view of the political and economic turmoil of post-war Europe. He worried in particular that the war reparations imposed on Germany and Austria would lead to dangerous political implications.
He wrote to his mother that the “reorganisation” of nations that had been imposed by the Treaty of Versailles had been a “fiasco.” Again, this can manifest itself in a right-wing politics of fear—anxiety about the (revolutionary?) mass and the crowd. It’s always a challenge for a writer to address the anxieties of the age: climate change, environmental collapse, war, financial instability. Eliot’s poem is one model of how a poet might address collective fears, folding them into patterns of myth and history in a text that is simultaneously archaic and absolutely contemporary.
David Barnes lectures in English Literature at Trinity College, Oxford, and has held academic positions at a number of different universities. He teaches, writes and researches about literature, history and politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is the author of The Venice Myth: Culture, Literature, Politics 1800 to the Present (2014). His work has appeared in the New European, Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, and The Times. He has also written, produced or presented a number of programmes for BBC Radio, notably Escape of the Zebra (as writer/presenter: BBC Radio 3, 2019) and Regarding the Pain of Others (as co-producer: BBC Radio 3/World Service, 2021).
Beci Carver is a lecturer at the University of Exeter and the author of Granular Modernism (2014). She has published extensively on modernist, modern and contemporary literature, and is currently finishing a book called Modernism’s Whims.
Robert Crawford is the author of Eliot After the Waste Land (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Young Eliot: From St. Louis to “The Waste Land.” He is also the author of Scotland’s Books and the coeditor of The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse. A fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of the British Academy, and of the Royal Society of Literature, he is an emeritus professor of modern Scottish literature at the University of St. Andrews. The Bard, his biography of Robert Burns, was named the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year in 2009. Crawford’s poetry collections include Testament and Full Volume, the latter of which was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize. He lives in Scotland.
Jahan Ramazani is University Professor and Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of a number of books of criticism on poetry, including Poetry in a Global Age (2020); Poetry and Its Others: News, Prayer, Song, and the Dialogue of Genres (2014); A Transnational Poetics (2009), winner of the Harry Levin Prize for the best book in comparative literary history published in the years 2008 to 2010; The Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English (2001); Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (1994), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Yeats and the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-Elegy, and the Sublime (1990). He is editor of The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry (2017); a coeditor of the most recent editions of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (2003) and The Norton Anthology of English Literature (2006, 2012, 2018); and an associate editor of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012). Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, he is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEH Fellowship, a Rhodes Scholarship, the William Riley Parker Prize of the MLA, and the Thomas Jefferson Award, the University of Virginia’s highest honor.