Prose from Poetry Magazine

Undead Eliot: How “The Waste Land” Sounds Now

by Lesley Wheeler

When reading a poet who found his own voice after 1922, I often come across a cadence or trick of diction which makes me say “Oh, he’s read Hardy, or Yeats, or Rilke,” but seldom, if ever, can I detect an immediate, direct influence from Eliot. His indirect influence has, of course, been immense, but I should be hard put to it to say exactly what it is.
— W.H. Auden

Thomas Sayers Ellis, or a version of him looping eternally on YouTube, is about to read “All Their Stanzas Look Alike,” a weirdly 
hypnotic indictment of academic and aesthetic politics. Before launching into the poem, he remarks:

I was beat digging at the artist’s colony, it’s kind of funny, and I heard “let us go then you and I when the evening is spread out against the sky in a red wheelbarrow and that has made all the difference.” The cadence of that decade became my new haint, the new thing that haunted me, and so I wrote this — this is an homage to that sound.

Imagine this pastiche declaimed in a deep-pitched monotone, as Ellis jiggles nonexistent jowls. He goes on to observe that during his childhood in Washington DC, “the voice that was on television all the time was Richard Nixon, and so when I began my formal training in poetry, you know, they all sounded like Nixon to me.”

Thomas Sayers Ellis reads Thomas Stearns Eliot (and Williams, and Frost) as Nixon, guilty spokesman for a corrupt establishment. This is part of what modernism means now, has meant for decades: not revolutionary art but stiff authority. Despite the stiffness and the guilt, though, Ellis describes enchantment by rhythm. Ellis was beat digging, riffling through old vinyl, haunted less by the denotation of the words than by their detonations. Auden is right that moments of Eliotic influence are hard to finger, but it’s precisely in cadence that Eliot’s work survives.

For twenty-first-century poets, Eliot persists as a sonic obsession more vividly than as a poet who leveled important arguments or shaped literary history. As editor, critic, and builder of poetic landmarks from recycled materials, the man overshadowed Anglo-American poetry for generations. For William Carlos Williams, the atomic blast of The Waste Land knocked American poetry out of its groove. For poets born in the thirties and forties — Craig Raine, Wendy Cope, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney — Eliot is monumental, although those writers have different responses to his looming edifice. Poets born since, though, metabolized Eliot differently. It’s not that modernism is less relevant. Younger writers claim certain modernist poets over and over: Williams, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, H.D., Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks. Eliot just isn’t on their public lists quite so often.

The “paradigm shift” lowering Eliot’s status, as David Chinitz puts it, occurred in the eighties. In 1989, Cynthia Ozick commented in The New Yorker on Eliot’s reduced place in school curricula. Books by Christopher Ricks and, slightly later, Anthony Julius brought Eliot’s anti-Semitism to the fore. Also in the late eighties, a prize-winning essay by Wayne Koestenbaum highlighted Eliot’s misogynistic and homoerotic correspondence with Ezra Pound, midwife to The Waste Land. Eliot’s poetry of the teens and twenties communicates fear of women, and often revulsion about their bodies, and Koestenbaum adds force to the point. Then there was Eliot’s portrayal in the 1994 film Tom & Viv by Willem Dafoe, a.k.a. the Green Goblin. Eliot is a synonym for tradition but he also became, for readers attuned to his prejudices, a supervillain.

The gradual mutation of modernist reputations over time is no catastrophe. Certain poetic frequencies, strong at the time, had become buried in interference. Poet-performers such as Hughes, Amy Lowell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg experimented with new performance modes and ultimately changed what we expect from poetry readings, in addition to publishing verse that hums with theatrical and musical energy — their signals should still reach us. Nor does the swelling of the modernist horde mean Eliot’s resonance has died. People want to voice his poetry and hear it voiced. Four Quartets, for instance, is popular again, inspiring performances by Chicago actor Mike Rogalski and by Ariel Artists, 
a group of classical musicians that stages collaborative events.

For poets making their names now, Eliot endures as a rhythm, an icon of recurrence. His early verse offers a resource for those 
obsessed with linguistic music but skeptical of meter, and particularly for poets who chime radically different registers and references, hoping to revive something human through uncanny convergences. For some writers, these powerful cadences are abstracted from meaning; The Waste Land is an emblem of obscurity, communicating mainly the impossibility of communication. Others, though, understand the noisiness of Eliot’s jazz-influenced verse as a mark and even a means of transformation. Sound is how Eliot expresses personal despair and social critique most forcefully, and also how he survives the apocalypse.

“Poetic sound” is a physical phenomenon and a metaphor. Voiced texts, whether performed by the author or by someone else, involve pitch, volume, duration, and all the linguistic prosody of dialect, 
including rhythm, stress, and intonation. Medium matters: live presence and video convey gesture, facial expression, and other visual information, while recording and broadcasting technologies introduce nonhuman noise and strip away most of what the body says. Silent reading is also a physical phenomenon, engaging muscles and parts of the brain associated with vocalization and audition. Printed, digital, or manuscript texts have other sonic attributes, too. Although recitation makes sound structures more audible, a good reader, without voicing a poem, may perceive alliteration, rhyme, and meter or other rhythmic patterns interacting with vocabulary and typography. I often seem to hear a poem as I read it silently, especially if I know the author’s own voice, and most especially if that voice is unusual — 
Brooks’s musical intonations, for example, haunt my inner ear more powerfully than Adrienne Rich’s plain intensity, although both 
authors are deeply important to me.

Because listening to an author’s recitation can change how you read a poem forever, never play Eliot’s 1948 recording of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” “Prufrock” on the page is full of discord, humor, fear, and despair, but the poet’s Talking Dead performance leaches out its urgency. Listeners to the Caedmon version of The Waste Land, recorded in 1947 and 1955 in London, and for a long time the only widely available performance by Eliot, have often felt the same horror. This version is, however, unforgettable. My own copy is a bootleg cassette handed to me in the early nineties by my dissertation adviser, A. Walton Litz. He remarked that Eliot’s recitation 
lasts just under half an hour, meaning, by Edgar Allan Poe’s rule of duration, The Waste Land counts as a lyric poem. Did Walt give this peculiar gift to generations of graduate students, or did he, like Tiresias, foresee my doom?

This aural document is peculiar in several ways. Part of the strangeness rests in pronunciation. Eliot was raised in St. Louis and educated in New England when American classrooms emphasized the art of elocution. The Waste Land was published in 1922, but by the forties, Eliot had lived in England for decades and delivered more than fifty radio talks via the BBC. The result of all this schooling, dislocation, and re-schooling is a placeless, transatlantic sort of accent. Eliot’s diction in the recording is precise, without elision unless he’s performing a Cockney conversation, as in the pub argument of part two. “Indifference,” for example, is a four-syllable word; “jewels” contains two. “Year” requires almost two syllables, fading out on a non-rhotic British- or New England-inflected r. An r at the beginning of a word such as “rain” sometimes receives a slight trill. He pronounces “shone” with a short o, “clerk” with a short a. Eliot’s nasal voice sounds a little affected, prissy, all head.

Another peculiarity is the unity the poem acquires in Eliot’s delivery. Originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” The Waste Land famously contains many instances of unmarked allusion and dialogue; perspectives shift radically, without warning; languages clash. Eliot’s recording does mark some of those differences. He utters certain lines with oratorical gravity but speeds up, mimics conversational rhythms in others. One striking instance of rhythmic transformation occurs within a single character’s voice. Madame Sosostris mouthing prophecy, for example, sounds slower and more serious than the brisk businesswoman who brings the fortune-telling session to a close. Later, Eliot pronounces each “O O O O” before “that Shakespeherian Rag” with escalating volume and pitch, enacting distress. For the most part, though, Eliot’s recording mutes disjunction.

Listening to a metrical poet read his or her work aloud can be a revelation, especially when rhetorical emphasis contradicts the apparent meter. While The Waste Land has many iambic passages — some of which Pound marked “too penty” in typescript — Eliot’s renderings of them aren’t surprising. He emphasizes rather than obscures cadences latent in print. This is also true of syntactic rhythms, such as the line-ending participles that punctuate the poem’s opening: breeding, mixing, stirring. Some of the most jarring sections 
consist of transliterated bird song — “Jug jug jug jug jug jug” — but Eliot pronounces those, too, precisely and unmusically.

Idiosyncratic music finally enters the recitation in the “Weialala leia” lines from “The Fire Sermon,” imitating, as Eliot’s note tells us, the song of the Rhinemaidens in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. We have time traveled on the Thames, back to Elizabeth and Leicester drifting on a barge. Eliot half-sings the syllables. These vocalizations are wordless — their meanings are their music — and yet it’s weird to hear this previously depressed character caroling them. So far Eliot’s reading has emphasized sentence over line, correctness over play or surprise. This changes as the poem finishes. In the syntactically broken, unpunctuated opening of part five, “What the Thunder Said,” Eliot allows each line break to hang in the air like a frustrated incantation. Later he sings a fragment of “London Bridge.” He slows down and softens his voice for the poem’s prayer-like conclusion. By now, the illusion of a single protagonist is strong, and the increasing intensity of the performance contributes to the effect. The development of the recording’s acoustic texture parallels and affirms the transformation this protagonist experiences, sitting at the edge of his despair, listening to thunder herald healing.

Eliot’s performance has interesting nuances, but it isn’t a particularly dramatic reading, especially given the dramatic nature of the text itself and his success as a playwright. A 1935 recording available online at The Poetry Archive is deemed better — his recitations became less dynamic as years passed — but the style and cadence are fundamentally similar. Eliot’s drone implies dislike of elocutionary theatrics, a common modernist sentiment, in favor of minimalist transmission. Yet Eliot could and did read in a markedly different way, most notably in his Harvard recording of “Fragment of an Agon” from an unfinished first verse drama, Sweeney Agonistes. Even on the page the lines seem highly rhythmic, in imitation of the music-hall jazz, vaudeville, and minstrelsy Eliot consumed avidly, but the 
cadence of his rapid, comic delivery is even more extraordinary. His delivery is accentual rather than metrical, imitating the flexible three- and four-beat lines of popular song with variable numbers of syllables between heavy stresses (“A NICE little, WHITE little, MISSionary STEW”). He even syncopates, stressing occasional off-beats (“Wear PALMleaf DRAPerY”). Genre distinctions partially explain Eliot’s striking change in recitation style. Sweeney Agonistes is drama and therefore uses what Eliot calls poetry’s “third voice,” character-based speech. In the essay “The Three Voices of Poetry,” Eliot distinguishes verse drama from what he calls the first voice of “meditative verse,” meaning “the voice of the poet talking to himself — or to nobody,” and from the second voice of persona poetry, in which one hears both poet and mask. The conceptually different voice of “Fragment” translates into a different authorial voicing. Still, the existence of the latter demonstrates that Eliot’s far flatter performance of The Waste Land was a choice.

One final detail about The Waste Land as its author sounded it: Eliot strips away the anti-poetic apparatus scaffolding the poem. A performance of the notes would be bizarre, but Eliot does not even read the epigraph or dedication — he frees The Waste Land from its scholarly frame. Hearing all the poem’s perspectives channeled through Eliot’s own peculiar accent illuminates this work as a lyric meditation, an expressive “piece of rhythmical grumbling,” as Eliot later claimed and Walt Litz advised me. Its motive and meaning root deeply, as lyric does by definition, in sound.

The resonance of The Waste Land, now as in Auden’s time, can be as faint and intermittent as a radio signal in the mountains. Major Jackson would seem likely to channel Eliotic echoes; he’s an allusive, sound-oriented writer who, like Eliot, mixes references from a wide range of registers. In an interview with Chris Tonelli for Redivider, Jackson remarks:

The re-mix honors the original; so much of our daily lives is inauthentic. The collage, the sample, the remix, gumbo, all work to recontextualize and reinvigorate how we experience and taste the world around us.... The remix allows us to view standards (and yes, even our clichéd lives) with new sets of eyewear or earwear. T.S. Eliot sampled. Bearden re-mixed. It’s the great, modernist trick. The thing to remember also is that this is how the past manifests itself in the present, how it influences and yields New Art, how it extends the conversation.

I wrote to Jackson in 2012 to ask what Eliot means to him, and his comments echo those earlier ones:

Indeed, Eliot was an early influence. Both The Waste Land and “Preludes” (and to a lesser degree such canonized poems as “Prufrock,” “Ash Wednesday,” etc.) lit a way for me to be highly allusive, especially with pop culture, but more importantly, his rhythmic changes and meters authorized a similar approach to composing poems.

In the fall of 2011, too, Jackson participated in a performance of Four Quartets with Ariel Artists and the Iktus Percussion quartet in Vermont, reciting passages of “Burnt Norton” in concert with other voices and instruments.

Jackson’s poetic references to Eliot, however, are slight and fleeting. My favorite of Jackson’s works, “Letter to Brooks,” a sixty-page epistle to the Chicago poet in rime royal, name-checks an astonishing number of twentieth-century poets. Eliot is not among them, although Jackson declares an urban “wasteland” can be a crucial inspiration for a poet. Jackson’s most recent book, Holding Company, begins with an epigraph not from the modernist poet but about him, via Robert Lowell’s unrhymed sonnet “T.S. Eliot.” Lowell’s 
elegy represents the circulation of names, talk, and influence within American poetry. Eliot may be “lost in the dark night of the brilliant talkers,” but this is a starry afterlife full of friendly constellations. By quoting Lowell on Eliot, Jackson enters that exchange. But after the epigraph, where is Old Possum? Holding Company begins, “For I was born, too, in the stunted winter of History,” and references “valleys of corpses,” gardens, soft broken ground, sensations of desire and loss. These images resonate with “The Burial of the Dead,” but given that Jackson also uses the phrase “I, too” twice, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman seem more obvious sources of inspiration. Imagery follows of war, painful Aprils, city streets, Greek myth, infernos, ruins, lovers unable to communicate, thirst and water — the 
vocabulary of The Waste Land is certainly in Jackson’s blender. Sometimes he gets closer to direct allusion, as in “Recondite”: “He connects with nothing. One imagines him / picking scars in the river.” We’re almost floating on the Thames with Elizabeth and Leicester or connecting nothing with nothing on Margate Sands, but the echo is weak, and the poem, to use Jackson’s word, recondite. There’s a sense that The Waste Land matters, but the matter of it doesn’t.

In Lucifer at the Starlite, Eliot definitely plays on Kim Addonizio’s jukebox, and not as background music. Addonizio’s subjects are similar to Eliot’s before his conversion. She portrays an infernal world full of debased sex, pointless violence, exhilarating art, and profound isolation. For her, though, The Waste Land is a sort of zombie poem, shambling dangerously into your ear and emanating the stink of perdition.

“Now recite /  The Waste Land, backwards, /  beginning with that sexy Sanskrit word”: her poem “Yes,” a mock-questionnaire for potential alcoholics, ends with the sobriety test from hell. Addonizio references the famous difficulty of Eliot’s poem (“Now recite ‘The Road Not Taken’” would kill the joke). The Waste Land offers a test of the reader’s erudition and interpretive powers, a competitive exercise rather than an emotional or intellectual experience. Fail and lose your poetic license. That it stands in for the usual demand to recite the alphabet in reverse suggests how fundamental The Waste Land is but reinforces its obscurity, too. The Waste Land constitutes a basic linguistic resource but is not intelligible in itself, backwards or forwards. Addonizio’s poem concerns addiction and depression, though, and while she doesn’t draw the connection explicitly, she implicitly identifies The Waste Land with those experiences. “That empty feeling crawling toward you” is an Eliotic monster, more insectile than the rodents dragging their slimy bellies along the banks of the Thames, but still embodying despair in a personal serving size.

Addonizio’s “The First Line Is the Deepest” links “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to the longer poem’s apocalyptic mood. Instead of measuring out sweetness in her life with Prufrock’s coffee spoons, Addonizio’s speaker doses herself into polite behavior with “little pills — Zoloft, // Restoril, Celexa, / Xanax.” What’s at stake is essentially personal suffering, although brand names indicate how psychic pain, sleeplessness, and anxiety are currently defined as consumer issues with well-advertised remedies. “The First Line Is the Deepest” later reframes the famous first line of The Waste Land as a question: “Why does one month have to be the cruelest, / can’t they all be equally cruel?” Coming right after a reference to Halliburton and right before an allusion to single-player shooter games, this tune is actually the dullest she spins. The Waste Land inspires anxiety and irritable questioning. Again, it’s that empty feeling crawling toward you. She swats it to death in the final sentences with Allen Ginsberg’s passion and Robert Frost’s beautiful misanthropy.

Robert Sullivan is a very different poet than Addonizio: talkier, more overtly and consistently political, witty in a quieter register. He shares, however, her attitude of listening; a strange assortment of voices loops through their brains, and both poets represent that mix with high fidelity. His 2005 collection Voice Carried My Family shifts between Maori and English, considering history, religion, and literature in quick succession. Sullivan worries over how colonialism has changed his relationship to language. While he identifies his family and heritage with physical voice, here he is working ambitiously in the medium of print. Writing the pronoun “I,” possessing a print self, may in itself constitute a betrayal of his family — and his desire to transcribe family stories and retell Pacific history worsens the problem. Several poems in Voice Carried My Family embody this conflict in his “shadow.” This word has a religious dimension, meaning something like spirit, but it also gestures toward the literary 
doppelgänger he resembles, wants to like, but must distrust.

Sullivan’s “13 ways of looking at a blackbirder” invokes a range of precursor texts, including the famous Wallace Stevens poem and Peter Pan. It also refers to, without glossing, a different meaning for “blackbird” than Stevens had in mind. Blackbirding, a widespread practice in the Pacific in the late nineteenth century, means tricking or kidnapping indigenous people to provide plantation labor. Sullivan imagines, “I must have signed a contract in my sleep / with a blackbirding devil / that nailed this shadow to my hands and feet.” This shadow or literary self is a manifestation of his enslavement.

A few sections later, though, he strips off that nailed-on double, retaining only a more natural shadow, portrayed here as a valuable gift handed down from his parents:

xii
in the purging wasteland shantihs
let peace rain down and sink the blackbirders
claw off the nailed shadow from me

xiii
free at last from irony and its grating
I have my shadow back
the one stitched to me by my mother and father
the one handed down tuku iho tuku iho

Somehow, a monumental and distinctly literary work becomes the instrument of peace. The reference flits by quickly, but Sullivan reads The Waste Land as a sincere poem of suffering and release. Interestingly, Sullivan inhabits not the waste land but the shantihs — 
that sexy Sanskrit word. Salvation and freedom lie in a return to family but also in the restorative sound of repeated syllables.

In The Waste Land and Other Poems, John Beer takes allusion to its limit, revisiting the modernist monument as if possessed by Eliot’s ghost. The book’s first poem, “Sound of Water Over a Rock,” empties Eliot’s poetry of meaning in favor of its tantalizing sounds. Beer refers to the hermit-thrush song in “What the Thunder Said,” the final section of The Waste Land. Its trill mocks refreshment in Eliot’s dead landscape: “Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop / But there is no water.” Beer’s response to Eliot’s prompt is three pages of quatrains, 448 words in all, consisting entirely of the syllables “drip” and “drop.” In Eliot’s original poem, sound is separated from reality by a frustratingly arid gulf. By stripping context from the birdsong’s transliteration, Beer amplifies and extends its implicit taunt. This is a dead world, without consolation.

Stephen Burt calls Beer’s book “anti-lyrical.” Beer’s idiosyncratic homage-parody-mirror-critique certainly challenges any association of poetry with self-expression. Eliot sampled and remixed sources, but for him the original works of art retained great power. In Beer, allusion resembles the visual experience of mise en abyme: if poetry ever could conjure something fresh and real, it’s an embedded speck now, carried out to sea by a tide of echoes. Yet somehow the illusion of voice is strong in Beer’s “The Waste Land.” His poem’s long first sentence invites us into the author’s associative dream. Scenes such as being sneered at in the Princeton Record Exchange are familiar, funny, and grounding. He conveys an intensely personal desperation at the unreality of the present world, the inadequacy of words. Eliot’s rhymes and phrasings become shorthand for the debasement of language and experience, but they also conduct a vivid sense of urgency.

“No song can bear / the weight we need to place upon it; / nothing 
returns as we ask it to return,” Beer writes from the “discount bin.” 
I teach Eliot’s The Waste Land yearly and every time I pick it up, it sounds more extravagantly gothic. Its images and rhythms captured my ear when I was an undergraduate in the late eighties, full of fashionable contempt for received forms and unable to admit how much poetic sound mattered to me. I was hooked by Eliot’s 
irreverent chiming not only of syllables and languages but of cultural 
extremes — Shakespeare and ragtime, personal crisis and public trauma, Greek myth and Bram Stoker. When The Waste Land returned to me in middle age, began whispering new lines in my mind’s ear, it was reborn as a zombie apocalypse tale. I was headed to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving at a particularly disastrous moment for my husband’s clan: relatives were eating each other’s brains and I saw omens of worsening infestation. My in-laws live very near the Monroeville Mall, where George A. Romero filmed Dawn of the Dead. The Walking Dead was on TV and I had just received Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for my birthday. I saw revenants everywhere.

In The Waste Land, Eliot, like any vampire slayer, desires and fears to reanimate the dead. Tarot cards, ghosts, sprouting corpses, mythic transformations, potions in vials, chuckling skeletons, baby-faced bats, voices singing from exhausted wells — The Waste Land is, among many other things, a horror story. Zombie horror involves bodies without minds or souls, terror that we might only be bodies caught up in meaningless rhythms of predation and digestion, that the goodness we aspire to is all just empty ritual. Composing my own poetic riff on The Waste Land made me consider what all plague survivors wonder about the undead. Beyond the familiar rotting visage, is anything human left?

For the youngest poet in this playlist, the answer is: stop worrying about stupid questions and listen. In slam pieces such as “William Shakespeare Gets Hooked on 8-Bit Nintendo” and “Sylvia Plath’s Gangsta Rap Legacy,” Jeremy Richards responds to pop culture through the diction, tropes, and rhythms of super-canonical poets. Richards’s Plath, for example, declares, “Mack Daddy you do not do.” The satire is so silly and deadpan, and so stylistically thorough, it becomes serious again. For these parody-homages, Richards chooses 
writers whose textual performances of self are especially layered. While Plath’s poems seem to collapse the distance between poet and speaker, for instance, her frequent gestures to a “peanut-crunching crowd” keep reframing the apparently expressive personal lyric as a circus. Hers makes a good position from which to mock the stagey misogyny of gangsta rap — and the similarly ritualistic critique of 
that misogyny.

The seriousness culturally attached to Plath is quite different than Eliot’s high-culture, pinstripe-suit seriousness, but it can have the same result: deadening what’s theatrical and funny about the writing, 
muting its catchy wit. Richards turns up the volume again, putting Eliot’s verse in conversation with popular song in “T.S. Eliot’s Lost Hip Hop Poem,” correlating Eliot’s extremely white persona with the sound and sense of an African-American form. In fact, these connections are already latent in Eliot’s verse, though Pound edited most of the jazz out of early versions of The Waste Land. Eliot wrote in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism that the “auditory imagination” involves “returning to the origin and bringing something back” — even the prose becomes iambic when he considers poetry’s roots in music. Eliot’s writing, at its best, reflects his own omnivorous listening in St. Louis, Boston, and London.

I’m not claiming “T.S. Eliot’s Lost Hip Hop Poem” as a twenty-
first-century literary monument to parallel The Waste Land, but Richards’s poem taps similar sources. In a recorded performance, Richards hunches over to assume the Ancient Modernist Persona and samples Eliot with nerdy fervor. He begins with a strong echo of “Prufrock” — “Let us roll then, you and I” — but quickly folds in a range of other conventions and references. An allusion to Lazarus yields to the command “Bring the bass,” beatboxing by Nathan Ramos, and the demand “Who’s your daddy now?” in Russian. Mimicking Eliot’s precise articulation, Richards rhymes “reign” with “again” and trills the r in “Bring the pathos!” Behind the camera, the audience laughs and shouts approval as he collapses the gap between modernism and spoken word.

Richards’s remix is an exuberant assertion of personal erudition resembling those by Addonizio, Beer, and Eliot himself, but inflected with rap braggadocio (“the evening stretched out against the sky / like a punk ass I laid out with my phat rhymes”). It is a canon-making gesture like Eliot’s own — a declaration that we must not allow these poems to slide into obscurity as vitality leaves the page for the stage. Richards also levels the implicit argument that self is performance, and a good performance survives through cadence, a sonic hook snagged in neural tissue.

Like all the other poets discussed here, Richards obsesses over loneliness and mortality. These were not fresh subjects in Eliot’s time, and they’re not dead ones in ours, although they can get a little stiff when writers and readers treat poetry too reverentially. To echo Major Jackson, an audacious remix revives the past and enables us to “taste” the present differently. Eliot’s work may be rotten in spots but persists vigorously; his own remix remains infectious. Rhythm is recurrence, the repetition of some element over time. While we breathe, the beat can still entrain us.

Originally Published: September 2, 2014

COMMENTS (2)

On September 2, 2014 at 2:17pm Surazeus Simon Seamount wrote:
I read The Waste Land in 1983 as a 19-year-old freshman in college. The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, The Sounds of Silence by Paul Simon, and later Howl by Allen Ginsberg, inspired me to write poetry.

My thirty years of poetry writing has been a response to The Waste Land. I pictured Eliot on his hands and knees, picking among the ruins of the cathedral of western civilization bombed by modern technology, as he held up fragments of old myths and sang about the glitter of light in the broken window of the ancient Aristotelian world view.

I am writing the Hermead, an epic poem about the lives of philosophers, perhaps as an attempt to reconstruct for my own satisfaction the ancient Temple of Philosophy because it is the foundation on which our modern scientific civilization of advanced technology was constructed.

On September 7, 2014 at 6:46am Mark Esrig wrote:
In Undead Eliot: How “The Waste Land” Sounds Now, Lesley Wheeler, seems to be on to something important. But it only seems to be so. It seems to be a trick based on accepting the opinionated observations of Wheeler’s two main authorities, W. H. Auden and T. S. Ellis. Both writers seem to be all the proof Wheeler needs to make her case that Eliot’s influence is more sound than sense, more cadence than insight. Thus Wheeler, via Nixon’s voice influencing Ellis, guides us through her elaborate thesis that “This is part of what modernism means now, has meant for decades: not revolutionary art but stiff authority.” Or “For twenty-first-century poets, Eliot persists as a sonic obsession more vividly than as a poet who leveled important arguments or shaped literary history.”

Wheeler’s argument is based on the acceptance that Eliot’s poetry, due to his anti-semitism and misogyny, has little meaning to offer 21st century readers. It does offer, however, Wheeler tells us, sound and rhythm, though its sense is purely stiff, formal and dated. Therein resides its only lasting value. Refusing to separate life’s imperfections from art’s perfect imperfections, Wheeler’s outrageous conclusions multiply like cancer cells: “Eliot is a synonym for tradition but he also became, for readers attuned to his prejudices, a supervillain.”

I think it is ridiculous to separate sound from sense. There is no logic is singling out Eliot’s own reading of “The Waste Land” as proof of Wheeler’s thesis. Her conclusions regarding the narrow influence of Eliot in literary history or poetic technique are founded mostly on her opinions, or inferred from various contemporary poets. Most of them would likely disagree with her. Wheeler denies the obvious: Eliot spawned confessional poetry, a trend so powerful and insular that its persistence would likely sicken him.

In the end, Wheeler’s purpose may pure but patronizing: “Eliot’s work may be rotten in spots but persists vigorously...the beat can still entrain us.” But she cannot have it both ways. The big problem with the essay is with Wheeler’s brand of certitude. She serves up Eliot’s cadence as a kind of desert with no main course or at least none that is edible to contemporary readers. Hasn’t she read Gordon’s T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life ? The entire biography explores “the divide between saint and sinner in the greatest poet of the twentieth century.” Gordon’s foreword should help Wheeler get back to basics regarding any attempt to reduce Eliot’s poetry to cadence only: “The aim[of this book] is…to follow the trials of a searcher whose flaws and doubts speak to all of us whose lives are imperfect.”

It may be that Wheeler feels that today’s readers and writers of poetry are more highly evolved than Eliot. Her brand of criticism is too narrow and apologetic to be of lasting value. She puts the cart before the horse and leaves it for the rest of us ‘searchers’ to push it from behind. By refusing to deal with the content in the work of a major poet like Eliot, Wheeler’s essay is no more than a praising of one tradition over another, a mine is better than yours prideful approach, that hurts more than it helps readers understand the life and work of T. S. Eliot.

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2014

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Biography

Lesley Wheeler’s poetry collections are The Receptionist and Other Tales (Aqueduct Press, 2012), Heterotopia (Barrow Street Press, 2010), and Heathen (C&R Press, 2009). She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.

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