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On The Wasteland: a biography of a poem by Matthew Hollis


I walked into the Blackwood bookstore in Cambridge with A. and Adam. Adam was looking for a copy of Killers of the Flower Moon – at age eleven, he has decided to expand his cinephilia by reading the books that provide sources for movies he has seen. Hence, Adam trudging around with a biography of Oppenheimer that weighs as much as he does.

I was pleased to see, in the stacks on the table of recommended books, Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: a biography of a poem. I’ve been reading it in a spirit somewhat like Adam reading Killers of the Flower Moon – this is a book about the source of one of the great delights of my life. Eliot’s poems ran into me when I was in high school, and I even memorized them, or at least some of them. The Waste Land is a poem and a banner – at Oxford in the Twenties, I’ve read, the crowd Evelyn Waugh ran with would recite the poem through a loudspeaker as they drove in some car through the town – such pranks! I would recite bits of it to my tennis playing buds in high school. They didn’t mind – my role in high school was to be an intellectual poseur. The problem was that it was distracting to hear tags from the Waste Land when you were trying to close up to the net.

“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.”

That sounded so satisfactory echoing among the tennis courts behind the main building of Dekalb Junior College. The College bears another name now, and who knows if the courts are still there. Ashes to ashes – such is my nostalgia for adolescence.

Hollis is very cool and confident about the sometime unprepossessing Tom and Viv act. Eliot, in this period, had still a ways to go before he decided to put a perpetual stick up his butt and call it religion or Christian civilization or whatever. How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot indeed. Half the book is about placing Eliot in that year in which he wrote the poem – and then, in writing the poem, Hollis does not overlook what a community effort it was, from Vivien’s suggestions to Pound’s. Pound’s were made just as Ezra himself was getting alarmed by Eliot’s increasingly moralizing criticism – the kind of criticism that latter claimed, for instance, that the important thing about Baudelaire was that he was Christian.

Hollis summarizes Pound’s response to the moralizing:

“He attributed to Eliot a remark that ‘the greatest poets have been concerned with moral values’, but that wasn’t exactly what had been said: Eliot had written of poetry, not poets, and of morality, not moral values. Nevertheless, Eliot’s article had prised open a discursive door that Pound would kick wide. ‘This red-herring is justifiable on the grounds of extreme mental or physical exhaustion,’ he announced in the Little Review, but justifiable on no other.5 The greatest poets have equally been concerned with eating breakfast and taking a walk and … Eliot’s statement, in other words, described nothing of significance.”

That’s rather my feeling, too. Poetry is pleasure, not a course of mineral salts. It is pleasure even in pain – that oddest of human feelings.