The Rear-View Mirror: The Waste Land and other poems (1940)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I’ve just finished Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, a book I would have stopped reading if I’d had to carry it around with me, but there is an excellent audio-book, read by Wolfram Berger, thanks to which I somehow made it through. Did I understand all of the philosophical, political and social musings in there? Of course not – not even half. That is the advantage of novels: you can delve into certain sections and figure them out and read on later, and you can skip other parts. Novels must have some kind of plot, or they are barely novels. There is an obvious red thread, however spurious, that we can figure out and follow.

With poetry, it’s another matter. While some poems can be utterly reader-friendly, such as those by Roger McGough, who has made it his life’s mission to promote poetry for everyone. (He’s got a new book out, Joinedupwriting, go read it.) Or they can be fiendishly obscure, such as those by T. S. Eliot. The hardcore test for any reader is probably The Waste Land and other poems, published in 1940. There must be droves of literature students who have despaired in the face of that slim volume; maybe that it the reason that, between the original publication of The Waste Land in 1992, and its inclusion in the book, he added so many explanatory footnotes that they are more than half as long as the poem itself.

So yes, poems are sometimes hard to figure out, on average probably harder than novels. But is figuring out really the point of the poem? Because most poems are not overly long, they bear repeating, and every poem worth its salt should be read more than once. I am a sucker for atmosphere, and atmosphere is for all of the senses. It is unlikely that your favorite character will come from a poem, and only a small minority of them will be filmed – although these days, they released a film based on a T. S. Eliot poem, a questionable endeavor called Cats. Funny coincidence.

Eliot advocated the depersonalisation of poetry, avoiding every emotional expression in a poem. Good luck with that, because you can try and avoid that all you want, readers will read all kinds of things into a piece of writing, including emotions. As Keats once remarked, if a poem is like a lake, the objective is not to swim to the opposite shore at once, or to try and measure it, but to luxuriate in it, to experience the lake with all your senses. There is no plot to work out. I am paraphrasing, of course, but that is why he is the poet, and not me.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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