This isn’t going to be a review. Not even sure what a 500 word review of The Waste Land would even say (“bit weird, rhymes aren’t as good as Pam Ayres, why are bits in German? Two stars”) Instead, this is more about why, when no-one was making me write an essay about it, I decided to dive into this important, difficult work.
I know poetry isn’t a thing most people enjoy. It’s something that’s shoved at them at school, or even at university, its complexity and ambiguity frustrating and intimidating. When it’s comprehensible it seems trite and when it’s not it seems purposefully obscure. I’ve shared some of these views in the past, but keep getting drawn back to poetry because I love the tight, beautiful language that reverberates around your mind for weeks and months.
I’ve dipped in and out of The Waste Land before. Mostly noting the odd phrase that I like (“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”) but then drifted away from it, scared by footnote references to Dante’s Inferno and the fact the poem drifts in and out of German, French, Italian and Sanskrit. It wasn’t a poem I studied at university, but joining The London Library made me realise that there’s a wealth of books I could read to replicate some of that experience and try and get my head around it. Further book reviews will almost certainly show that I’m a long way away from doing such a thing, but the journey of learning more about the poem, Eliot himself, and then branching out into other works of his has been hugely rewarding.
The poem is full of the best of echoing lines. Reading it and listening to multiple readings (Eliot’s own I find hard to love, but Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes and Fiona Shaw have all done wonderful versions), some many, many times has helped get the wonderful language lodged in my head.
I think the final thing that’s been helpful is the realisation that whilst I still don’t understand all the layers, the depth, the constant references to other works, or what I’m supposed to take from this modernist masterpiece, neither does anyone else. Indeed a poem’s meaning can only ever be what it means to the reader. There is no objective authority to tell you. Even the poet themselves can’t be objective about it. It’s like an unsolved, indeed even unsolvable, mystery.
But best of all, no-one’s making me write an essay about it.