Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Wasteland and Other Poems

by T. S. Eliot

Nobel Laureate. Very difficult to approach with a clear setup or even as a fair reader. One, I don’t generally read poetry, and I enjoy it even less. Two, Eliot’s work is really too famous to engage with, and has been alluded to or quoted in part so often that it’s difficult to factor through the connections to the actual writing. I was always going to be a hard sell on this particular text. And, unsurprisingly, I can’t count myself highly moved, enlightened or entertained. There are good elements in here, with the obvious control over language on display, and some striking imagery. On the whole, however, I found it dull, awkward, overly dense to follow and not delivering appreciable insights when parsed. In part this issue comes round to Eliot’s distasteful politics and simplistic religious endorsement that I find displeasing, and which it’s hard to disentangle my view. In either case, though, ther seems to be a fundamental limitation in the vision of what to say with the poems and how to say it, a type of writing that at points seems to purposely distance itself from ready access.

Above all what struck me was how upper bound it was, how insistent Eliot’s poems were in citing earlier classics as the ground for becoming classics themselves. It’s overwhelmingly elitist, increadibly focused on an education available to few and which was accessed by even fewer in Eliot’s time. That makes for a fitting, is aesthetically deflating, pattern in the fame and widespread literary allusion to which the poems, and especially the Wasteland, have been subject. Reading it felt often like a closed book, it was so heavily bound up in referring to previous literary classics, and had been so often alluded to in a similar fashion, that all the nicely craften literary quality seemed self-contained. It’s a well formed exercise, and one can easily see how it gives generations of scholars work in parsing and interpreting. Beyond that, though, it seems to be self-contained and purposefully detached from possible application for the world in a manner that I do not see with most literature.

Worse than: Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri
Better than: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

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