The first time I read The Waste Land was in an undergraduate literature class. I was maybe 20 years old. I remember being awed by the poem's language and scope, and by the sense of loss that seeped in between every chewy, tactile word. And although I'd been writing poetry on the sly for almost 10 years at that point, it had never occurred to me that a poem could do... all that. I never credit myself with genius; I've known genius writers so I know the difference; and really, Mostly I plod along and stumble over things that I end up playing with on the page. And since I learned most of what I knew about history from cartoons and literature ... (maybe not) surprisingly little in class ... up to that point, it was the first I'd read about the world after World War I. I had a young man's view of history -- namely, anything that happened before my birth, whether it was the Revolutionary War or Vietnam -- was OLD. I tried expressing this to the professor, Ron Morrison, once in a conference, and I think both my absolute rubism and my exasperation at needing more put him off.
My love for T.S. Eliot's poetry has always been at odds with some of the politics people read in his work. It's unavoidable, I suppose. The Waste Land is a deeply socio-political poem and he was, towards the end of his life, a notoriously conservative Tory. His early association with Ezra Pound -- who was saved from the rope for supporting Hitler and Mussolini only because he was found psychologically unfit to stand trial for treason -- hasn't helped.
And while I don't have to agree with a poet's politics to like their poetry, it's difficult to overlook the literary company Eliot kept. In an time when there's a lot of talk about cultural appropriation, revisiting T.S. Eliot is like trying to keep your footing in a mudslide. Yes, he borrowed (or stole, depending on how deep your reading into decolonialization is) from a cross-section of every culture that white Europeans have historically colonized or attempted to colonize. It's necessary to recognize that -- in spite of the debt I feel I owe to his poetry. Overlooking it because he's dead or because he's been categorized as one of "the greats" by those who feel like they have the ability to offer up such an opinion doesn't help anyone, including Eliot.
I've been reading around in an anthology edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, The Making of a Sonnet and was surprised to come across the first stanza of the "The Fire Sermon."
Granted, I hadn't read it in a long time, but I lived in "The Fire Sermon" for a long, long time, both on and off the page. The form and focus of my Expedition Notes was inspired by it in many ways. So reading it as a sonnet rather than a stanza surprised me. It shook me out of a long established context. And while I'm grateful to Boland and Hirsch for bringing this back to me and for providing another context, I'm not sure it's a sonnet in the traditional sense.
Then again, sonnets don't have to be traditional anymore. And thank God for that.
Various critics have argued that the sense loss in The Waste Land is the poetic version of the idiot's guide to nationalism. But in 2011, Pouneh Saeedi argued that rather than embracing nationalism, The Waste Land seeks to unify seemingly disparate and false dualities.
Now I like that idea: Eliot as man looking for a unifying principle, the poet's version of The Theory of Everything. I'm still sifting that one through the brain box, but I like it. And while I'm not sure that 14 lines alone makes a sonnet, it did make me want to take a stab at one: