Sunday, April 28, 2024

In April, I lived inside T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Some reflection.

Last night, I participated in a reading of Eliot's iconic poem, The Wasteland. In preparation, I've spent the past month listening to recitations of the poem on Audible, various podcast episodes, and YouTube videos. There is, of course, the required listening to T.S. Eliot himself read it--even if his auditory imagination is a stack above his auditory performance. There are fan readings by strangers among us that are enjoyable in their own right, especially since these are often recited in the first, neutral and plodding tones we ourselves may have silently read onto the poem upon finding it. 

In college, when I was assigned to read The Wasteland (with a gentle suggestion that we should read it first without the footnotes), I came to class ready to discuss it and found that my professor Trena Evans had wheeled in a TV and a black and white recording of people reading it. And what a smart move! Listening to the actors suddenly settled the poem into its hills, valleys, tavern conversation, birdsong, and distant gramophone music--and I was dazzled. Dazzled. That I was living in downtown Chicago, away from rural life for the first time in my life, must have made The Wasteland a poem peculiarly right for helping me understand this place and life where I now found myself.

And now, over twenty years since I first carried The Wasteland around in my head and on the far edge of the country, I've spent many running miles this month listening to it again, and other solo moments reading it. And how wonderful! How necessary! To have Eliot's words actively moving in my brain, changing the colored lens I see life through. As I ran the Bitterroot Runoff up 3,000 ft of increasing elevation, Eliot said to me "In the mountains there you feel free", and I thought, I do not feel free; I feel tired. So Eliot and I had a bit of a joke there. When my preschoolers and I were walking through the park and had to turn around, I saw our shadows and Eliot said, You see how it rises to meet you. And I thought, Yes, there it is! Then I said, Look at our shadows! to the child whose hand held mine.

All of this is to say that living inside a poem, a great poem, is a wonderful, meaningful experience that I have missed. Rolling it around as it rolls me around as a marble in wind. Of course I recommend it. And if you begin searching for the voices of those who call the poem into what it can become, then I absolutely recommend this dynamic, stellar, and deeply considered performance of The Wasteland by Fiona Shaw: