by Jeremiah Webster
If Madame Sosostris shuffled her “wicked pack of cards” today, would there be the hanged man, the “lady of situations,” the great wheel? Would Stetson walk among the dead? Would Cleopatra reign from a gilded throne? Would the three virtues (Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata) hold promise in the 21st century? Or would April prove equally cruel, equally despondent, beyond all hope of pilgrimage? We are ninety years removed from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland (1922). This manifesto of the new, whose author according to Ezra Pound had “modernized himself,” is now older than The Great Depression, the atomic bomb, Bob Dylan, and DOS.
It’s amazing how contemporary the poem reads though. Detroit and the Rust Belt’s decaying infrastructure are easy substitutes for the Unreal City. The tone deafness of American politics, of the mega-church, mirrors the landscape of “no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road.” The fear Eliot promised “in a handful of dust” still has teeth in an age of banker bailouts and interminable war. If anything, Bernie Madoff makes Jay Gatsby look quaint, provincial in his Jazz Age decadence. Tired of bootlegging? Try credit default swaps and derivatives.
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Last semester I abandoned the syllabus and led my students through The Wasteland. I included excerpts from Four Quartets (1943) to boost morale: all manner of things shall be well. The experience was intellectually challenging, but fruitful (there were more than a few groans as we attempted to gather insight from Eliot’s infamous “notes”). After the Shakespearean Rag and death by water, after hyacinths and a triune shantih, a student raised her hand.
“Dr. Webster,” she asked, “is there a single poem that has been written since that contains as much ambition, learning, creativity, or innovation?”
There was nothing cynical about her question. She asked as one who had encountered art, and like Emily Dickinson, had felt as though the top of her head were taken off. The drudgery of schooling became a pale blue dot in the cosmos of shared intellectual inquiry.
How could I respond? She was asking a closet New Critic, who also read and admired contemporary poets. She was asking a disciple of the “Make it New” generation, who had invested time and money in the postmodern milieu as well. But a voice, a departed nymph, pulled a line from W.B. Yeats from the corner of my brain before I could reply: “No man can create, as did Shakespeare, Homer, Sophocles, who does not believe, with all his blood and nerve, that man’s soul is immortal.”
I have carried her question with me ever since, so genuine as it stumbled into the minefield of contemporary literary criticism. I suppose I could have waxed eloquent on the colonial ambitions of Modernism, on the repressed sexuality of Eliot, on the accusations of elitism and the hegemonic gaze, but I couldn’t do it. Instead, I answered my student’s question with another query, an impromptu Socratic dialogue, “What ambitions drive the poetry of our time? Do we have a Wasteland, a poem of shored fragments? Do we even need one? Would anyone read it if we did?” I welcome nominations from you, dear reader, before Sosostris reads her tarot by the light of a hundred candles.
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The Wasteland / T.S. Eliot
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.