Re-read “The Wasteland” this afternoon, and was impressed – no, taken aback – not only by the haunting and relentless power of the poem, its still-startling and almost frenzied capacity for disturbing, but also its ability to give birth to voices as varied as Merwin and Ashbery. The poem also struck me as philosophically similar, in some ways, to Ashbery and Merwin, because of its tenacious and violent refusal of universals, in favor of a fragmented lyricism whose power resides starkly and solely in the particulars of its evocations.
What do I mean? There is no abstract theorizing in “The Wasteland”; images in the poem, all of the “broken images,” tell the story of the crumbling if not destruction of values in the 20th century, but do so with such compression, such genius, that there is no mistaking the tone or concerns of the poem, even as the poem alludes to this crumbling and destruction without stating it directly, as if the horrors encountered during the 20th century were so traumatic as to be incapable of pondering with any straightforwardness, which of course makes some sense. “The Wasteland” is about nothing except trauma, I would hazard, but if this is true then we can also say, with a kind of strange optimism, that this trauma engendered 21st century poetics, like birth pangs giving rise to whole new worldviews, new styles, new aesthetics.
Here is an example of Eliot’s genius for images, which I want to then relate to Ashbery and Merwin. It’s in the final, fifth section of “The Wasteland,” called “What the Thunder Said” (and notice the faint echoes of Whitman here, especially in the second line):
In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
This is a narrative without a moral, images without centers, places without people, poems without beliefs, post-apocalyptic. The grass is singing, but not, in any Whitmanesque sense, to signify a sensuous overjoyedness with the abundance of existence, with life; the grass is rather singing without an audience, and its singing is a kind of whisper, near gravestones that have fallen and cracked, and a windowless chapel with a swinging and creaking door. Meaning has been sucked out; meaninglessness reigns, as the cock on the rooftree is illuminated briefly, insanely, by the flash of lightning. “The Wasteland” is a lethally haunting whisper, a Merwinesque stutter issuing out of cracked and groaning lips, and I am convinced this whispering quality of the poem is related to the poem’s meter and lack of punctuation in places, again invoking Merwin.
But if the poem resembles Merwin in tone, its structure and plethora of voices resembles Ashbery. For in Ashbery, like Eliot of “The Wasteland,” we read in a mood of distracted focus, in which the unexpected continues to whomp us on the head, even while we are blown away by the sheer incomprehensible power of the images. Reading Eliot is like that – we might not know what exactly is happening, but we cannot stop reading because of the richness of the tone, the intensity of the imagery, and the sort of (pardon the phrase) wizardry of the rhythm.