1997 marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." This 434-line poem stands as a benchmark of International Modernism, that early 20th-century efflorescence of writers, musicians, visual artists including Picasso, Stravinsky, Beckett, and Joyce among many others. Eliot's most influential work said, in essence, that the world is nothing but a smoking ash heap. Several generations of poets growing up in Eliot's tall shadow agreed.
Many poets writing today would not. I'm one of them. We say that the world's a mess, yes - messier than Eliot imagined. An ashheap, no. More a compost heap: disgusting decay studded with a few still-viable bits, all cooking down into something that supports life even as it stinks.
"The Waste Land's" disjointed style is its message, embodying the breakdown of the world's spiritual connective tissue. It juxtaposes the rich and the lowly; the drawing room, barroom and stale one-room flat; bloody mythologies, historical murders, little murders of mind and soul. Ashes are among Eliot's emblematic substances.
Coming in from the literally smoking landscape of World War I, Eliot, along with much of his artistic generation, encountered - far worse - an ash heap within. The soul was the site of the final wasteland. Ordinary folks' respite from the damage outdoors - ,, friendship, work, sex, affection, the creature comforts - were corrupted beyond redemption by the rotted and dried-up soul.
April, in "The Waste Land's" famous first-line metaphor, was "the cruelest month" because what little life managed to erupt from the soul's desert was sick and stunted.
Eliot was 33 when he wrote "The Waste Land"; the 20th century had just turned 22. Maybe concentrating on individual spiritual desolation is a luxury of the young. (No wonder my angst-riddled first book, published when I was 32, ended up in so many garage sales.) War-weary, war-torn, hungry, the century emerged from World War I seeing physical, social and political disasters on a global scale for the first time. It has been doing so ever since, of course, and at an accelerating rate.
Today's poets have not failed to notice: a recent issue of any mainstream poetry magazine is likely to include poems about AIDS, racism, street crime, mass environmental suicide, racism, torture and war. Relentless, enervating, all-enveloping ills - yet ills that lie outside the individual artist's psyche, no matter how deeply they affect it.
By comparison with the disasters outside, the spirit inside actually seems benign. Like Anne Sexton in her poem "Live," I am "not an Eichmann." When I write about love these days, I mean love, not steamy hate or passionate ambivalence. Love has, in fact, rejoined the catalog of viable topics for poetry. All sorts of love.
Maxine Kumin's and Elizabeth Spires' most recent books contain achingly intense though entirely unsentimental poems about children. The larger part of a recent issue of Poetry focused on baby boomer-poets' tough love for their parents. Adrienne Rich portrays a convincing picture of domestic warmth surrounding her and the woman she loves.
The latest collection by Robert Hass (poet laureate of the United States), "Sun Under Wood" (Ecco Press, 1996), actually celebrates a functional heterosexual marriage, one heated by physical love, intelligence, creative frictions and ordinary Middle American comforts.
In a radically different way, Jack Gilbert, in "The Great Fires" (Knopf, 1995), celebrates marriage: His graphic depictions of what it meant to care for his wife, Michiko, during her terminal illness tell us she was powerfully loved.
Whimper, no bang
As I dig through my den's waist-high stacks of new books of poetry, I notice that a handful of writers seems to be responding quite specifically to some of Eliot's despairing phrases. The often-quoted end of "The Hollow Men," a continuation of the waste land theme that Eliot published in 1925, says, "This is the way the world ends ... /Not with a bang but a whimper."
I flip open Clarence Major's 1996 anthology, "The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry" (HarperCollins). Cornelius Eady's "The Dance" creates a life-loving persona who says, "When the world ends,/ I will be in a red dress./ When the world ends,/... I will shake like the/ semis on the interstate,/ And I will shake like the tree/ kissed by lightning,/ And I will move; the earth will move/too,/ and I will move, with the remains of/my last paycheck in my pocket./ It will be Friday night/ And I will be in a red dress."
Eliot-echoes, deliberate or accidental, occur in "Four in the Morning," a poem by 1996 Nobel Prize winner, Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. She writes, "The hollow hour./ Blank, empty./ The very pit of all hours," but briskly refuses to universalize the hour into a dark pit of the Soul: "No one feels good at four in the morning./ If ants feel good at four in the morning/ -three cheers for the ants. And let five o'clock come/ if we're to go on living."
Joyful noises sound (albeit delicately and tentatively) in some of the contemporary poems that, like the one above, emanate from places that saw massive disaster in both Eliot's time and ours. Here, in its entirety and translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass, is Adam Zagejewski's "Auto Mirror":
In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral;
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.
David Kirby celebrates an expatriated student's love of his own exuberance in "To A French Structuralist": seeing "the young mothers and working girls/ raise their skirts and open their blouses/ to the sun while the children play," he enjoys imagining that "When I look again,/ perhaps they'll all be naked,/ bosoms swinging and long legs flashing/ in the midday light. Ah, that clerk at the Prefecture de Police looked at me with such disdain when he asked what I was doing in Paris!/ It was a lie ... /when I shrugged and said, 'Nothing.'" (All three poems above come from "A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry," Czeslaw Milosz (Harcourt Brace, 1996).
Meena Alexander, a New Yorker by way of India and Khartoum, is one of today's new crop of "love poets." She claims in her remarkable 1996 book of poetry and prose "The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience" (South End Press) that while "violence is women writers' 'second language," their first is "the longing for love."
Love and song
Her prose poem "New World Aria" is an apocalyptic love-vision that risks near-comedy with a weird happy ending: "I see a city filled with women. ... I see small fires, in garbage cans, by the park benches. ... Driven out by the heat, as if they themselves had not set flames roaring with cans of kerosene, with tiny matchboxes pilfered from kitchen and restaurant, the women come running.
"Hundreds, thousands of them, a mountain of women gathered by the river. ... Suddenly I hear a sharp voice crying, 'Where are the children? ... Where are the men?' The mountain starts to quiver. Someone lifts up her grey skirts, another her torn black sari. Arms and legs poke out, beards, thighs, hair, chests, tiny quivering lips."
The piece concludes with all 10,000 women singing. Given Alexander's Indian roots, it's easy to hear them belting out what Eliot whispered - unconvincingly - in his Diamond Jubilee poem: "Shantih. Shantih. Shantih. Peace" - the word that puts an end to "The Waste Land."
I'll spend April cultivating my garden.
Clarinda Harriss is a professor of English at Towson State University. She edits and directs the New Poets Series. Her most recent collection of poems, "Licence Renewal for the Blind," won the 1994 American Chapbook Award.
Pub Date: 3/30/97