Review: The Waste Land and Other Poems

February 10, 2011 Comments Off on Review: The Waste Land and Other Poems

I’m not sure I should actually review books of poetry. Especially ones like this one, where the poems I like need a lot of rereading and pondering. It wouldn’t be fair to give a hard evaluation. But, after a first reading, I think I don’t care for Eliot’s rhyming poems. The rhythm is sickly sweet and facile and prevents serious reading, at least for me, even though what they say is serious, worth reading, thought-provoking, &c. The unrhymed ones are better. In general he makes a lot of allusions, which frustrates me because I always have to look everything up, and sometimes he makes allusions to stories and characters that he made up—a fun concept in the abstract, but in practice incomprehensible. I’m sure volumes have been written about Eliot’s use of imaginary people, but I’ll leave it to them to explain why this is a good thing. I prefer my poems to be sovereign bits of beauty or truth, with any allusions made optional, so that anyone who can read English can read the poem, and only the poem, and gain something from it. On the other hand, it used to be not only conventional to make Classical allusions, but usual for educated people to have a background in Classics. It probably appeared less problematic to Eliot than it might to a poet today. And he does have a habit of throwing out a sentence that doesn’t really make sense; it’s the kind of thing that you might say to a close friend to evoke a quick reminiscence without actually reviewing the story. It’s confusing and off-putting, and makes you feel that, since you aren’t privy to the story, you are somehow unworthy to be involved at all; maybe you should just go home. It’s frustrating because he has such lovely and almost mystical ways of putting things that you think if he meant something specific—or not specific!—he should have put it better. His precision of language makes you think that you can take everything you read at face value, even though doing so causes obvious problems. The best example I can think of is from one of my favorite poems, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” which is a great title, for starters. It’s about being out late at night and feeling the wind and moon loosen your memory and identity (I think). At one point the street-lamp says to the narrator, “Regard that woman/Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door/Which opens on her like a grin./You see the border of her dress/Is torn and stained with sand,/And you see the corner of her eye/Twists like a crooked pin.” The door opening on her like a grin is a fantastic image, but what’s all this about sand and pins? He goes back and forth between atmospheric and obscure, and it’s hard to tell which is which. That’s not a criticism, it just makes it difficult to understand. It’s hard to handle some weird crap about this random woman’s dress and eye when the poem kicked off with this fantastic stanza:

Twelve o’clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations
Its divisions and precisions.
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

What I did like about the book, besides Eliot’s way with atmosphere and the deliciousness of his language, was that it was not just a random jumble of poems, but included three small volumes of poetry, so any significance in the selection and arrangement of poems Eliot might have intended was preserved. The first was Prufrock and Other Observations, which I liked a lot. I especially like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” because I was made to read it in eighth grade, when I was far too young to understand it. What I knew about it was that it was very long and didn’t make a lot of sense. Then, a couple years ago, I was hanging out with a friend of a friend who was aghast when I told her I didn’t like it. She got down a well-loved copy and read it out loud. She is the best reader I have ever heard, and in her voice, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” blew my mind. The second volume is titled simply Poems, and was composed largely of the singsongy rhyming poems that I strongly dislike, even if they did have some good lines in them. And the last volume, which may not have been an actual volume but only this one long multi-part poem, was The Waste Land. I was disappointed to find that it didn’t correspond to my idea of the Wastelands as portrayed by Stephen King; I didn’t realize I had an idea in mind of what I thought the poem would be like, but it was very different. It was dense and difficult to understand, although I very much liked parts of it. I need to read it about ten times, I think, and discuss it with someone, and then I will be qualified to comment on it. When it comes down to it, what I found the most disappointing about these poems was the feeling that they should really be taught in a class. On the other hand, maybe with enough rereading, I can teach myself.

SELECTION: “Morning at the Window”

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.
The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs.

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