A Hundred Years of The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot would have liked Las Vegas. Well, maybe. As Ryan Ruby recently pointed out, Eliot did like listening to Frank Sinatra. And he wrote a great poem—perhaps the great poem—about a desert land filled with fragments of other cultures.
The Waste Land consists of the remains of an epic poem that has been shattered into a million pieces (“a heap of broken images, where the sun beats”), the detritus of various traditions picked up here and there and reassembled as a literary shanty for a postapocalyptic scavenger. It was written by a Westerner (or at least, a guy from west of the Mississippi) and aggressively edited by an Idaho native. Like Las Vegas, it proved to be an odd assortment of cultural landmarks, the Aeneid next to the Upanishads, Paris next to Mandalay. It quickly became notorious, known for its glamor, its glitz, and its garbage.
The Waste Land was first published in the inaugural issue of British literary magazine The Criterion, which Eliot himself edited, in October of 1922. It shortly thereafter appeared in the November 1922 issue of The Dial, an American periodical, which paid the poet $2000 for it (about $35,000 today—not bad for a poem in a little magazine). In December, The Waste Land was published as a book by the New York firm Boni & Liveright. At only 433 lines, it made for a pretty slim book, so Eliot agreed to add the endnotes that in turn contributed to its fame as a “difficult” poem.
When it first came out, readers were divided on its merits. Eliot had already developed a reputation as a significant poet (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had appeared in 1915), and The Waste Land arguably elevated him to superstardom. But many critics were confused by the arcane allusions, the multiple voices in multiple languages, the mix of Grail lore and soda water. It was all over the place—“a kaleidoscopic movement in which the bright-coloured pieces fail to atone for the absence of an integrated design,” according to one prominent reviewer, Louis Untermeyer.
Lots of bright colors, movement, no integrated design—sounds like Las Vegas. Eliot’s point (to the extent that he was trying to make a point) was that the modern world was a complex assortment of many old traditions which had all somewhat suddenly become obsolete in a time of automobiles and telephone lines. He certainly wasn’t the first to think this way; celebrations of the poem’s centenary have been following those for its more prosaic companion, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, also first published in 1922. But whereas Joyce’s novel generated controversy because of its content, Eliot’s poem challenged the very notion of what it meant to create literary art in the modern era. Reflecting back on the appearance of The Waste Land in his own 1948 Autobiography, William Carlos Williams remarked (as Johanna Winant reminds us), “It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it.”
By the time he won the Nobel Prize a couple decades later, Eliot had achieved the rare feat of becoming both the most significant poet and the most significant critic in American letters (even though he was living in London and had become a British citizen). His work occasioned a paradigm shift. Before The Waste Land, American poetry looked quite a bit different; in 1922, the winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry was Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Collected Poems. (In another world, one could easily imagine Robinson’s 1910 “Miniver Cheevy” as more iconic than Eliot’s 1915 “J. Alfred Prufrock.”) Today, Robinson has been all but forgotten. And Eliot’s critical emphasis on the “impersonality” of the poet led to the so-called New Criticism that required college students to focus closely on the texts of poems and to ignore the lives of the poets.
Two new notable publications celebrate the centenary of Eliot’s world-shaking masterpiece. Jed Rasula’s What the Thunder Said: How The Waste Land Made Poetry Modern (Princeton UP) treats the work less as a poem and more as a phenomenon, a component in the modernist cultural revolution. Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem (Norton) is much more biographical, getting down into the nitty-gritty details of just how Eliot—with the help of his friend Ezra Pound and his first wife, Vivien Eliot—composed this iconic text.
These titles join a general uptick in scholarly works on Eliot. Robert Crawford’s Eliot after “The Waste Land”, published this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, completes his impressive (and massive) two-volume biography, which began with Young Eliot: From St. Louis to “The Waste Land” in 2015. Eliot completists may also want to purchase a digital subscription to The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition. Only $300 per year!
But ordinary fans of the poem will probably want to check out The Waste Land: A Facsimile & Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound (Liveright), edited by Eliot’s second wife, Valerie. This volume first appeared in 1971 and largely changed our understanding of the poem, allowing readers to see all the cuts and alterations Ezra Pound made to the first draft. Pared down per Pound’s suggestions, the published version was much tighter than the poem (titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices”) with which Eliot began. Liveright has reissued the book for the poem’s centenary. Eliot’s manuscript pages now appear in color, and Matthew Hollis has contributed a new afterword and an appendix with some recent archival discoveries.
The Waste Land is, notoriously, a difficult poem, especially since it is featured today more often on college syllabi than in the cultural marketplace. But people shouldn’t take it so seriously. Eliot didn’t—he called it “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” The rhythms are a big part of the fun (it’s “a symphony of ruin in five movements,” remarks A. E. Stallings), and the poem profits from being read aloud. Eliot recited it to Virginia Woolf in June of 1922, several months before it was published. “He sang it & chanted it rhythmed it,” wrote Woolf. “It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry; & tensity.” If you buy The Waste Land app ($9.99) for your phone, you can hear readings of the poem by several celebrities, including an excellent recording by Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins. Just as Dante’s Divine Comedy had been centuries earlier, Eliot’s The Waste Land was a beautiful marriage of high and low—elite and popular, eloquent and slangy, sublime and slapstick. Eliot’s sense of humor, notes Anthony Lane, “never lay far below the surface.”
Waste lands aren’t empty lands. They’re typically filled with rubbish and rubble, detritus and debris. A waste land can be fruitful to a scavenger. This was why Eliot saw a world war as a poetic opportunity. Only a god can make something out of nothing, but a human can take something old and make it new. While it would be going too far to suggest that Eliot was a war profiteer, this young man from Missouri did venture across the exploded heart of the European continent, collecting and reassembling cultural artifacts and pieces of outworn traditions into a form that fit his modern sensibilities: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
What better encapsulation of the spirit of Las Vegas? There’s nothing new in Vegas; every shop, store, and restaurant has its origin somewhere else. But there’s nothing quite like it, either. The desert waste land becomes an oasis, a zone of renewal. This is where the second acts in American lives get their start.