When I went to the University of Virginia’s bookstore to pick up semester readings for Fall 1999, what I noticed about T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” was how big it was. The 8.5-by-11-inch trim of A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, edited and introduced by Valerie Eliot, stuck out in an otherwise congruent stack of books. I wondered how the professors who team-taught a seminar class devoted to “The History of Literature in English III” would illuminate a poet whose work I’d found intriguing but inscrutable back in AP Lit.
I appreciated what their lectures and the facsimile offered: a full portrait of a man pressured by finances; pressured by the ennui of his job in banking, by his commitment to his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood Eliot; pressured by the larger question of whether and how his output as a poet had lasting value. What my professors understood is that to access a text via raw manuscript pages, inflected by handwritten edits, is a strangely intimate and revealing act. Even now, spying my marginalia in Bic pencil, spurs a protective instinct toward undergraduate me, who jotted down the comment, “Chess, working to clear the board—Waste Land as game of high culture?”
When I first read “The Waste Land,” I was more than a decade younger than Eliot was when he wrote it. What I focused on was how hard the poem was, how complex. I am intentional in calling the poem “big” and “hard.” I was bumping up against inculcated beliefs that to be Poet was to be Statesman, and Statesman was a Man’s Work. If I wanted to crack that ceiling, my first challenge was to “crack,” or decode, poems integral to the ceiling. So, I crawled through every footnote. I relished Pound’s famed edit, slashing through the first fifty-four lines. Younger me fixated on the manuscript’s intellect, the world-building, sly allusions stacked on allusions.
Now, eight years older than Eliot was at the time of publication, I read differently. Some suggest “The Waste Land” cannot be extricated from the brutal dissolution of Eliot’s relationship with Vivien Eliot; I am not the scholar to evaluate that. Still, I read for the poem’s heart, its thirty-four-year-old author’s weary body, and reflections on the functions and malfunctions of mortality. I read for “Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, / [who] Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell / And the profit and loss.” Also, full disclosure: I drafted this essay while curled up in a chair in my husband’s hospital room. Mortality is on my mind.
Have you ever been stranded in a bathroom dramatically more grandiose than whatever was going on in your body? Or maybe you’re the one who curated your throne-space, not realizing how comically inappropriate the setting would feel one day? My goal is not to be a trigger; my goal is to get you thinking about “A Game of Chess,” Part II, previously titled “In the Cage” (or: “He Do the Police in Different Voices”). My goal is to get you thinking about strategizing victory (chess) versus seeking survival (cage). My goal is to get you thinking about the fact that someone has experienced a pill-based abortion in this poem, something acknowledged neither in the facsimile’s endnotes nor in my memories from the ENGL 383 lectures.
Perhaps she is sitting on “The Chair […] Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines / From which a golden Cupidon peeped out.” Perhaps, if the stanza break changes scene, the “she” is part of a recollected conversation, wondering how Lili can keep Albert (“demobbed,” meaning, discharged from military service) interested:
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.
In the facsimile, there is a strike-through on medicine, with the suggestion of pills as a more direct substitute. “Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,” is the reply in-scene, which confirms the speaker as a confidant or someone otherwise outside immediate drama. On the next page, Vivien’s tweak suggests this substitution: “You want to keep him at home, I suppose” becomes—thanks to her—“What you get married for if you dont want children?” I appreciate the bluntness.
Not looking to second-guess Ezra Pound, but I’ll point out that, minus that edit of the first fifty-four lines, this poem would have been received as a much chattier and “vernacular” poem. Is that a bad thing? In 1922, yes. In 2022, perhaps not. The truth is, you cannot edit in anticipation of the generations that will receive you.
Take, in a post-Beat and post-slam age, these lines:
Twit twit twit
Jug jug jug jug jug jug
So rudely forc’d.
[O swallow swallow
Honestly, I hadn’t realized before that “O swallow swallow / Ter” had fallen away in the final version, and I am pissed. How can you not play with dualities of “swallow” as a word—verb, bird as embodiment of transformed Philomela, sonic pattern-making that primes the pump between “Tereu” and “Tiresias”? Ah, well. Tiresias still waits, narrating the tableau of The Typist “home at teatime” in section III, “The Fire Sermon.”
I better understand the dynamics of that section now, having laid out dirty camisoles on a radiator in my first post-college apartment in Washington, D.C. Maybe you haven’t put “a record on the gramophone,” but you’ve probably played music in the anxious silence of a lover’s exit.
This poem will sustain as many interpretations as one wants to give it. The text becomes a litmus test of my ability to entertain negative capability. As a teacher, I worry about that; as a poet, I embrace it. Personal confession? Yes. Cultural pastiche? Yes. Political text? Sure, if acknowledging ableism and neocolonialist erasure of the Other, beyond “Shantih shantih shantih.”
A friend once said to me—summarizing the simplest measure of a poem—“But does it make you feel something?” With that in mind, I read from section V:
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
My breath stops on reading these lines. My blood “shakes my heart,” and I think of my husband who is heart-shaken. I wonder about what is lived and what is recorded of our living. Isn’t that the gap poems are meant to bridge?
Eliot’s poem has that power, though it took me a while to find it. I had to direct the divination rod toward what lay under layers of clever intellect (yes, seven pages of notes later) and tangible edits (look at them, too, especially Vivien’s handful of scribbles). I won’t claim that 1922’s “London Bridge is falling down” is this year’s “America is a dumpster fire”; I also won’t not claim that. Our incantatory, essential verses for the coming years are probably not going to be written by white men who work in banks. But that’s a dated construct. Who the hell cares about big and hard?
Just give me fragments, shored against my ruins. Just give me true.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2022 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2022 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.