This month’s Something New brings us something really new, new in genre as well as in publication date. Last week I reread The Waste Land in preparation for…This Wasted Land. (I figure the title means both that “this land” is being wasted, as in mis- or under- used, and that “this land” is really, really drunk. The whole poem reads as really, really drunk, in the best possible way.)
I picked up this thoroughly peculiar volume in the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge two years ago. I’d spent long enough browsing that I felt I ought to buy something, I liked the cover, and I liked the small excerpts I flipped open to read. I didn’t have any idea what it was beyond that.
The book is a parody, sort of, of The Waste Land. Ezra Pound famously cut Eliot’s poem drastically (and much to its benefit, I understand) and Eliot added footnotes explaining the more obscure references and some of the mythology behind the poem. So Marc Vincenz wrote a 35-page poem with the same structure as The Waste Land making, as I read it, huge fun of the original while weaving in an exuberant (if I had to choose one word to describe This Wasted Land it would be exuberant) raunchy sort-of love story in contrast with Eliot’s vignettes of sexual apathy—and Tom Bradley added 140+ pages of hilarious, learned, off-the-wall commentary, including copious footnotes, a substantial bibliography, and an afterword by a fictional academic named Siegfried Tolliot with whom he is engaged in a feud.
Full confession: I mentioned that a lot of the nitty-gritty of the Waste Land has me stumped, though I fancy I get the basic idea to some extent. This Wasted Land is even more obscure and learned (and full of literary in-jokes), and it too has me stumped. I’ve only begun to dip into the footnotes (the “chymical illuminations”), which are in some strange way quite helpful in addition to making double entendres and deliberately flouting logic and making me laugh out loud. So I’ll offer some general thoughts on the poem today and when the next “something new” comes around I’ll dig into the experience of rereading the poem with the footnotes.
I mentioned that what looks to Eliot like a waste land might look to someone else like a teeming jungle. I would say, having finished the poem portion of This Wasted Land, that Vincenz and Bradley are one example of my “someone else.”
Vincenz and Bradley pay lip service (mostly mocking—I think, but it’s hard to be sure) to Eliot’s pessimism and disgust, making explicit some of the pathos (or, it starts to seem as one reads This Wasted Land, bathos) of the original poem. But the absurdly specific images they rope in, the rich, bouncing, sonorous, and (again) exuberant language they use to do so give this the lie, as do passages like
blue heaven begins to hum a far less wretched tune
of rain and chymical sorcery, coercing tubers and roots
to squirm within sallow layers— (lines 8-12)
This Wasted Land shows me viscerally why one can’t/couldn’t get away with trying to write like T.S. Eliot today. I needed to see this, because I tend to prefer modernist poetry to contemporary poetry in general, but I think that’s largely because I’ve read the best of the best of the moderns whereas my contemporary reading is almost random.
- The rhythms of The Waste Land, which had hit me as genuinely noble, now sound stuffy.
- The bitterness of the Waste Land now feels like a manifestation of probably-real depression and less like Dire Truth. This is not to say that there’s not plenty to be bitter about in the world, but the cultural decay Eliot mourned is at once mostly illusory (Eliot’s supposedly broken heap of images have revitalized and are jumping around on pogo sticks here) and, in the scheme of human misery, not that bad.
- Eliot’s mixture of registers and cultural milieu now feels kind of pathetic by comparison to the mixture of pop-culture references and obscure literary references on offer here.
It’s delightful to see someone who’s really on top of today’s information-rich world, who can offer references from a vast array of Western and non-Western sources, who has piercing insight and a sense of humor, creating something new; Vincenz and Bradley dance cheeky circles around the venerable Eliot, making almost explicit the reasons people tend to sneer at dead white men and offering (thank God) something that feels like it might surpass said dead white men intellectually (maybe even aesthetically) as well as morally.
Ok. Maybe claiming these authors have surpassed Eliot in any way is wrong. In fact, it is most probably wrong, because I am still an arrogant, under-educated fool, and I don’t understand either poem that well. But. The Waste Land is a piece of the canon that appeals to me viscerally, unlike a huge amount of poetry I should probably love, and this piece to my mind accurately and effectively mocks it while offering a headspace that I approve of more and may even like more: the exuberance (that word again!) of this poem feels both happier and truer than the bitterness of its model (or, perhaps, better to say, its victim.)