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Weekends with T.S. Eliot (2)

July 20, 2011
Jeanette Winterson (b. 1959), British writer

Jeanette Winterson, 2005 (Image: Courtesy Mariusz Kubik, via Wikipedia using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
(from “V. What the thunder said”)

I’ll just leave it at that.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2011 8:32 pm

    I blame you for the fact that “jug jug” has been in my head all week! 😛

  2. July 21, 2011 12:10 am

    Thanks for capturing the essence of this app for me for don’t have an iPad. Sounds just wonderful how tech. can enhance our literary reading experience. T.S. Eliot is indeed brilliant, considering how different the world was then and now, yet how the language and images he’d created are relevant even in our digital age… maybe more so even. Not trying to be ‘literal’, but these two words just jumped out at me: “Falling towers”… how prophetic is that?

  3. July 21, 2011 12:24 am

    This app really does show what can be done – and it’s a shame it’s only available for this format. I expect we’ll see a plethora of similar apps appear over the coming months and years.

    Anyhow, I do love Eliot’s language too, as I wrote in a previous post. And you are right – literal or not, ’tis rather prophetic. (On a lighter note, TS Eliot’s Old possum’s book of practical cats provided some of the first poems I read to my kids – after nursery rhymes. They sound great and are fun to read. Both kids have a love of words and wordplay. I reckon Eliot is partly responsible for that.)

  4. July 21, 2011 12:30 am

    I just read a comment that while Eliot’s most famous work was ‘The Waste Land’, his best was probably ‘Four Quartets’.

    • July 21, 2011 12:53 am

      Oh, I must read Four quartets again … or wait for the app! So much of Eliot is worthwhile and memorable isn’t it?

  5. July 21, 2011 12:57 am

    i love ts elliot

    • July 21, 2011 1:00 am

      Welcome Tinkerbelle … you’d probably love this app then (if you haven’t seen it already)

  6. July 21, 2011 2:49 am

    T.S. Eliot as bottom-feeder cracks me up especially since in America to call someone a bottom-feeder has perjorative connotations. You are really making me wish I had an iPad.

    • July 21, 2011 8:50 am

      Always happy to crack you up Stefanie (!) … must say that I thought it has a somewhat perjorative ring to it and yet it conveys a lot doesn’t it when used in the context. As for the iPad, it is a beautiful thing and I am gradually finding more ways to use and enjoy it.

  7. July 21, 2011 3:20 am

    Thanks for this interesting summary. I think it’s amazing that more books haven’t been done this way. The app sounds like what DVDs have been providing for years with films – added extras, special features. For me personally, I still prefer paper, simply for my ability to focus on one thing at a time and get absorbed in it, rather than flitting back and forth between different things as I do in the digital world. But it’s good to hear about innovative things being done, and thanks for letting me know about it!

    • July 21, 2011 9:00 am

      Welcome Andrew … now you’ve raised it, I’m actually reminded of some of the early CD-Rom applications – and the interactivity they explored/provided. There was a gorgeous one done by the CSIRO here down under on Insects. Then the web took-off and CD-Roms were forgotten BUT this is very like those CD-Roms (with lovely touch-screen functionality).

      I’m sure it will take off, but I guess we’ll just have to see.

      I’m still, though, rather attached to paper for reading – or something more dedicated and easier to hold like the Kindle – but it is fun exploring different devices and thinking about how you might use them.

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