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TLS on The Waste Land App: “Only digital in the sense that it requires the use of a finger”

By Harriet Staff

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was one of the first digital books for Apple’s iPad, “reported last summer to have made a profit within six weeks of going on sale.” We also pointed to the NYT, which reported that the application even knocked Marvel Comics out of the top spot on the list for top-grossing book apps.

Today, the Times Literary Supplement has a different story, noting that “The Waste Land for iPad does a cut and paste job on a masterpiece of poetic collage, shoring fragments of old rope against a reading experience that is often only digital in the sense that it requires the use of a finger” and that “[t]o have turned a profit so quickly, however, may say as much about The Waste Land app’s production budget as its undisclosed sales figures.”

Jeremy Noel-Tod goes on to review the app’s annotations:

B. C. Southam’s A Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot has long been aiding readers nonplussed by Eliot’s own Notes (“I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken”). Since 1968, it has been through several editions – the latest in 1994 – gradually expanding in reliable information, scholarly speculation and citation of other sources. But Southam’s notes have simply been filleted wholesale here, without copy-editing or linked bibliography. No amount of tapping, therefore, will tell you who the other critics referred to by surname are, or why you’ve just scrolled through two slightly different versions of the same idea about Rupert Brooke.

Noel-Tod is also unimpressed with many of the interactive extras, writing that the manuscript facsimile “has been chopped up as an incomplete spread of page images with cursory, twirling captions,” and that the accompanying illustrations are even “less illuminating.” As for the audio:

The most interactive aspect of the programming is the pop-up menu which allows you to compare, with a little fiddling, how half a dozen different recordings of the poem take each line. In practice, this means contrasting five fairly sombre versions by male readers (Eliot twice, Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen) with the vocal melodrama of Fiona Shaw, who acts the poetry off the page. What Eliot said about the writing of free verse applies to the reading of it too: “the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras”. The poet’s own mournful incantations remain the best, because he plays the Ghost to the Hamlet of his text.

Shaw’s performance knowingly looks back to Eliot’s admiration for the music-hall star, Marie Lloyd. It might have been a valuable drawing out of the many female voices in the poem, had she not made them into grotesques by exaggeration. Eliot praised Lloyd’s performances for uniquely avoiding just this. His own subtlety is there in the manuscript note that declines Pound’s suggestion to change the Cockney woman’s “something” to the coarser “somethink”.

It’s possible to watch a filmed version of Shaw’s performance too, which at least distracts from her misquotation of the text, and evidently represents the main investment in new material. A separate gallery of video clips promises commentary “from a range of interesting people”, half of whom have been imported from a BBC documentary two years ago. The problem with this feature is the same that hampered educational CD-ROMs in the 1990s: talking heads are not as efficient at conveying information as written words. They are better at gesticulating to emphasize commonplaces, though.

The digital presentation of a work with such a rich archaeology could have been so much more technically ambitious and intellectually serious, to invoke just two qualities of Eliot the poet….

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, February 20th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.