Wrestling with the canon, or, Pierre Menard and “The Waste Land”
Two things I found useful to keep in mind as I read and re-read John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems:
1 A passage from Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence:
The modern poet, as W. J. Bate shows in The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, is the inheritor of a melancholy engendered in the mind of the Enlightenment by its skepticism of its own double heritage of imaginative wealth, from the ancients and from the Renaissance masters. . . . The great poets of the English Renaissance are not matched by their Enlightened descendants, and the whole tradition of the post-Enlightenment, which is Romanticism, shows a further decline in its Modernist and post-Modernist heirs. The death of poetry will not be hastened by any reader’s broodings, yet it seems just to assume that poetry in our tradition, when it dies, will be self-slain, murdered by its own past strength.
How does any contemporary poet—even one who chooses to take issue with Bloom’s linear history of decline, one who refuses the overwrought, even silly, drama of struggle Bloom revels in—manage to acknowledge and engage with the long shadow of the past without being overwhelmed by it? How write poetry after, well, all that poetry?
2 Exodus 7: 20–22:
And Moses and Aaron did so, as the Lord commanded; and he lifted up the rod, and smote the waters that were in the river, in the sight of Pharaoh, and in the sight of his servants; and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood. And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. And the magicians of Egypt did so with their enchantments: and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, neither did he hearken unto them; as the Lord had said.
That moment has always troubled me: sure, Pharaoh’s magicians, you’ve shown that you can match Moses and Aaron trick for trick, but what have you really done? The waters are already blood—have you somehow made them bloodier? And if so, to what end? Is that what you really wanted, waters that are somehow bloodier than blood? What is a poet to do with a masterpiece that speaks to him? Match it? Better it? And if so, is there a risk that the result will just be a bloodier river?
By the simple act of audaciously swiping the title of Eliot’s book, John Beer offers a good indication of how he’s going to deal with the long shadow cast by the red rock that is Eliot’s masterpiece: he is going to write Eliot’s book while not writing Eliot’s book, writing a “Waste Land” for today while acknowledging the absurdity of such an effort—like a Pierre Menard injected with bravado, insouciance, and a sense of humor.
The book’s prefatory poem, such as it is, confirms that suspicion. Its seven-word lines consist of shifting repetitions, through sixteen four-line stanzas, of only two words, “drip” and “drop”—both taken from the journey to Emmaus portion of the final section of Eliot’s “Waste Land,” where they are an onomatopoeic representation of the song of the hermit-thrush, transformed, by parched pilgrims, into the sound of the water they so strongly desire. And in Beer’s hands? The sound, warped by desire, interpolated awkwardly into Eliot’s poem, is warped yet again, into a hypnotically repetitive string of words and sounds that so tests the bounds of poetry as to seem like a dare, a flung gauntlet. This book, in other words, will not by any means be a slavish imitation of Eliot.
After that rebarbative opening, it’s actually a surprise how accessible the subsequent poem, Beer’s actual “Waste Land,” is, at least moment by moment. It opens with a sense of plenitude, the opposite of Eliot’s denuded late-winter landscape, as Beer reels through a typology of cities like a drunken Marco Polo,
Once more in the city I cannot name,
the boat city, the city of light,
the city that endures its fall,
the city of pleasures and vicissitudes,
the skier’s city, Fun City, the city under the sky,
city of crime and vegetables, Pornograph City,
the city governed by the Lost and Found Department,
And on, and on, some of the list’s juxtapositions bringing smiles of a sort found nowhere in Eliot. But by the time we reach the inevitable (and somewhat disappointing) echo of Eliot’s opening lines—here April is “the coolest month, which brings / happy policemen the pleasant dreams of spring”—a sense of menace has crept in, impatient policemen with unanswerable demands:
They still refused to answer my questions.
I know my life is in terrible danger.
Further direct echoes of Eliot abound, usually—as with the swap of “coolest” for “cruelest”—injected with a hint of the absurd, or of the diminished. Eliot’s interpolations of music hall lyrics—”that Shakespeherian Rag”—turn into
O O that T. S. Eliot
he’s such a shrinking violet
and if you think I sigh a lot
try life with T. S. Eliot
The ominous “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” of Eliot’s bartender becomes
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS.
WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.
And whereas Eliot’s speaker shored fragments against his ruin, Beer’s speaker, in this over-written, over-documented age, has nothing but footnotes to buttress him. (In fact, Beer carries the game all the way through to the footnotes, aping and echoing and mocking Eliot’s stuffy clarifications of the enigmas offered by his poem: where Eliot noted the influence of The Golden Bough, Beer acknowledges Neil Strauss’s The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists.)
Yet for all that constant, intentional undercutting of solemnity—:Shhhh. I am allergic to melodrama,” says one line in the final section, “Death to Poetry”—Beer at the same time refuses ever to fully deny the seriousness of his enterprise. At times, remarkable though it may seem, he even achieves some of the sense of naturally confident gravity that, all these decades later, makes Eliot’s poetry so bracing. In the opening lines of section two, “Don’t Look Back,” for example:
A degree or two to the right
of an imagined meridian
marking time’s monotonous ecliptic
tracing and retracing the animal steps
that bring the man down narrow hallways ,
a painting hangs, depicting
an almond tree in blossom, unfurling,
white petals against a deepening green
By making those lines so stately and specific, so clearly reflecting a certainty that this is how to describe this painting, Beer draws us into a loop of image and reality that he then surprises us by snapping tight:
. . . if the tree must be a sign
of the viewer’s hunger to escape from signs
and thereby lose the world, the tiny scar
unmakes the fiction that sustains the tree
The concerns of that passage, its attention to specificity and subjectivity, to the need to simultaneously have individual and universal experiences, crop up again in some tightly formed, rhymed lines of iambic pentameter in the poem’s next section:
with corporal preservation
recapitulates the ancient
ceremonies of atonement,
or so, at least, it seems to me
as I lecture empty rooms
on F. H. Bradley and the moon.
Not the moon you lovers see,
the moon as it appears to me
and me alone, my eyes refined
by distillation in the mind
Which leads, after the distraction of a bouncily feckless, infectiously nursery-rhyme-style account of a riot in the voice of the happy policeman, to a thudding series of questions:
Where were you then?
I was at North and Clybourn.
No one was with you?
I was alone.
And Death’s dispensation?
It came with conditions.
Conditions you flouted?
I slipped. The underworld does not forgive.
It is as if the thunder has spoken—early and unwelome—and what it wants most is to pin us down, to prove us guilty.
The final section, “Death to Poetry,” opens—fittingly?— with prose, and we once again hear the removed, confident voice, jokes temporarily dismissed:
Orpheus woke in the poem of disguises, the poem once called “The Waste Land.” Friends, listen up. He gathered the remnants of the life he had dreamed. He renounced the burden of the name he bore. He began to walk.
And as Orpheus walks, though other voices speak up, the fundamental seriousness remains, a concern for the “world ash-sick, a bad dream world / no longer the mirror, no longer the poem” through which he walks, so that when Beer draws the poem to a close, “abandon[s] the ruse that had once been the poem,” the jaunty, Tin Pan Alley allusions and tempo of his closing lines are belied by the gravity of their tenor, the sense they get of being sung in quiet, self-doubting defiance of a graveyard darkness.
There are plenty of other poems in the book. Some of them (a trio titled “Flowers,” a series of “Theses on Failure,” and “J. Beer, 1969–1969″) are very good, while a couple of others, at times, fall too far into obscurity or jokeiness. But I’ve allowed “The Waste Land” to dominates this review, because it dominates the book. It’s the poem that stays in the mind afterwards. Much in Beer’s poem—like much in Eliot’s—remains elusive, even willfully confusing. Its jumble of voices and bricolage of song lyrics, overheard speech, and shifting tones can be enigmatic. But if Eliot’s poem was in part an attempt to figure out how to understand and live in a world whose every meaning had been shattered by war, then one key meaning of Beer’s poem seems to lie in the tension between the chaos of lost people and destruction that Orpheus sees in his walk down those “ash-sick” streets and an earlier, almost plaintive wish declared in a different voice:
. . . But isn’t
a life deformed by constant struggle a life
as much defined by power’s rule as one
in which you carve a space out for yourself?
I want to find my happiness on my own terms.
That’s what we all want—isn’t it?
The rivers have long been running with blood, and now it’s up to us to figure out what we might be able to do about it. And how much we care.
Levi Stahl is the poetry editor for The Quarterly Conversation.
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