Weekends with T.S. Eliot (2)
We are all everyone and everyone is us. (Fiona Shaw, talking about The waste land)
Last weekend I finished the Perspectives section of The waste land app, by listening to Fiona Shaw, Frank Turner and Jeanette Winterson. The fascinating thing is that they all say the same things, albeit in slightly different ways.
Timeless, universal, undated
Shaw talks about the timelessness of the poem, saying it doesn’t need to be brought up to date. Cities still exist, we still commute, we still visit suspect clairvoyance, she says. She also argues for its universality in the sense that we can be Hector sitting in the chair, or ourselves. We may only have one life but through poems like this we can also have many different lives. But we readers know this don’t we.
Turner’s take is a little different. He likens Bob Dylan to Eliot suggesting that both were “bottom feeders of the culture around them”. Putting it another way, he says they both have a “prophetic voice of judgement”, like prophets from the Old Testament. And you can’t get more timeless than that!
Winterson argues that Eliot, way back in 1922, saw where we were going: The waste land, she says, is “about now”, and is not “dated in any way”.
Captures the twentieth century
I love Shaw’s description that Eliot
Scraped a rake around the 20th century and gathered a leaf mould heap of what it was about.
Not bad, if you agree with her, for a poem written in the first quarter of the century.
Turner, similarly, describes the poem as “zeitgeisty”. He says Eliot identified that the forward progression that had been happening from the Renaissance to the first World War had come to an end. The waste land documents, he says, the failure of the progressive idea.
Winterson and Turner both call it a prophetic poem. While many saw a bright future after World War I, Eliot, says Winterson, saw the spiritual malaise coming. She suggests that if Eliot visited London and New York today he would not be surprised to see the economic crisis we are in, the way we have forgotten all values except “making money”.
Reinventing the language of poetry
Shaw talks of the way Eliot mixes banality (the throbbing of cities and machines) with lyricism (“the violet hour” for example). Turner, likewise, talks of how Eliot’s language can be angular and uncomfortable, and then suddenly be intersected with something lyrical, with more traditional “poesy”. Winterson articulates all this beautifully by describing how Eliot recognised (consciously or unconsciously?) that the language of poetry needed replenishing. He used, she says, fresh, direct, colloquial language, “the language of the everyday” to express “eternal things, the big ideas”.
As I listened to these various perspectives and how each saw the relevance of The waste land to now, I wondered whether it has been continuously relevant over the nearly 90 years since it was published – and somehow I think it has been. World War 2, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the troubles in Ireland, not to mention strife in the Balkans, the Middle East, Africa and South America. Even when on the surface – as in the 1920s – life has seemed comfortable for many, there has been something not quite right, and so:
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
(from “V. What the thunder said”)
I’ll just leave it at that.