I originally chose The Waste Land because I had read it in college and many times after. There was something about it that grabbed me, although I certainly could not say I “understood” it.
Since we had read some poems during the summer, I thought doing this poem, which many regard as among the best in the English language, for my monthly suggestion would add diversity to our selections.
I have to admit being intimidated by the task of leading a discussion on such a difficult poem.
A breakthrough came when I was visiting David in Idaho. One morning we sat down and read it aloud to each other. David’s knowledge of classic literature and mythology greatly increased my knowledge of the poem so I decided to ask him to co-lead the club’s discussion with me.
We both bought and studied many books and articles. The sheer number and diversity of them was inspiring and daunting. Many were highly critical of The Waste Land; others were very impressed with it.
David and I discussed the poem for about 3 months in emails, on the phone, and using Face Time (the Apple equivalent of Skype). We learned more from our readings and discussions but it became clear that it would be audacious on our part to try to have a discussion that “explained” The Waste Land when there is so much literature on it by people more qualified than we are. Further as we studied we took different directions and didn’t share a single point of view.
As the day for the discussion approached I confess to a certain amount of anxiety. What would we do if some, or worse, most of the group took the attitude expressed in an early review that the poem was simply “A Waste of Paper?” Or suppose the group decided as a whole that the poem was completely impenetrable?
David and I each chose what we thought was our own particular learning and decided to start the discussion with these ideas. David emphasized the need to listen to the poem read (by Eliot or other professional voices) or to read it aloud for oneself, best done reading it to another person. In this way he thought that we could catch onto the essential greatness of the poem – its rhythm and melody as well as content and meaning. Through a gradual instilling of its sound and sense, each of us would erase the strangeness of the epic sweep of the poem and begin to take it on as something familiar and comprehensible.
I took a more analytical approach because the “Waste of Paper” review had said the poem had no structure or coherence. I analyzed two themes or motifs that ran as recurrent imagery throughout the poem: Sex without Love, and the use of images of wetness, dryness, and death by water. I sent these analyses out to the whole group hoping some would read them and recognize that they showed clearly that The Waste Land does indeed have strong coherence, and a very well thought out and successful structure, leading to a resolution of the crisis.
So David and I each spoke briefly on these ideas and then turned it over to the group for discussion. I sweated thinking my fears were about to be realized. I learned that I had completely underestimated the members of our book club. Every person there had made a serious effort to dig into The Waste Land and get something from it. I was blown away with the insights that were shared and the ideas that I had never thought of that came from members who had not studied it as long as I had.
So all we want to say is that we came away from our discussion greatly impressed by how the group had successfully tackled this hard poem. We think this shows what a strong group we are, why we have lasted so many years, and why we will continue to last and work together and learn more and more how to be friends.
Thanks to you all for your great contributions, I’m proud to be a member of the Tacoma Retired Men’s Book Club.
For those who wanted this blog to be a complete exegesis of The Waste Land, I say again, neither David nor I are that audacious. We are still questioning the how and the why of this great poem. However, if you want we will be happy to supply you with hundreds of references. In the end, it comes down to one’s own interpretation and feeling for the work, having lived with it for some weeks in our imaginations.
Peter and David