from The Threepenny Review, Summer 2012
It is a nostalgic poem, so let me start with my own memory of it. Seventeen or so years ago, I came to The Waste Land in the way I then came to most poems—high on caffeine, late at night, crouched on the floor of Moe’s on Telegraph Avenue, coming to books by finding Berkeley jetsam. I would have been alone, away from friends, perhaps en route to a party, perhaps not. I was comfortable in my aloneness. I had no money, so I wore hand-me-down clothes and bought hand-me-down books. On evenings like the one where I first read Eliot, I collected things I liked—Rexroth, D. H. Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Pound, Levertov. I liked nice books, certainly, but ragged ones, too—the cheaper, more underlined, more battered, the better. I can’t say how much I understood of The Waste Land—I think I read it because it was Eliot, and I knew I should read him. I was ambitious. A lot of it, not merely the epigraph, was Greek to me, but it was sonic Greek. I bought the collected works for $3. I read them in solitary hunger.
I have a distinct memory of that self and that book, and when, seventeen years later, a publication I quite like asked me to review the new iPad app of The Waste Land, it was this memory I had to contend with. When the app—$14 for one poem, displayed on a machine that costs several hundred dollars—emerged ethereally in our kitchen on my husband’s iPad, complete with service announcements and jargonish code, I was ambivalent.
Welcome to the new technology. My first impression of receiving the poem was of being on hold. Despite the app’s ability to appear in our kitchen via download, getting the “book experience” to work took some faceless pro-forma code-filled emails to the iTunes support line (the Greek replaced by the daily flarf of 6W9JNTNAKA9E, at your service). This took a day or so, in spurts. How often these days one has to call customer support: we have traded in laying down our lives in coffee spoons for calls to iTunes. Hold music played. Informational menus repeated. TO SPEAK TO X press 3. I missed the clear simplicity of the book, which you can always open. I missed the dusty scent of Moe’s. I missed the memory of myself reading.
Still, after some sturm und drang, the app got installed. With a finger tap, I opened it. What are the roots which clutch? According to interviews about the app, its publishers, Faber and Touch Press, designed it to put the poem front and center. It felt sort-of center: the app opens to a menu of eight kinds of interactive experience, of which just reading the poem is only the first. Tap “poem” and position the iPad in lengthwise direction and clear text appears. I did. But before I could see T. S. Eliot’s poem, I saw, once again, my own face hovering in the screen. I was in my own way, yet again. “Can you turn off the lights?” I called to my husband, who was reading the newspaper beside me. “I cannot see the poem.”
Glare removed, complaints quelled, coffee beside me, I finally began to read, or rather, to explore my newly mediated book experience. For the next month, as I played with the app, I was impressed, educated, delighted, and grudgingly won over. I liked scrolling around The Waste Land. I could see that there was something keen about how the app mixes its medium to suit the poem’s message. After all, what is The Waste Land but modernism’s composite icon, collaged fragments of everything from the King James Bible to the Ziegfeld Follies and working class pub speech to The Tempest and back? This is a poem of many voices. Now it’s possible to listen to everyone from T. S. Eliot himself (in 1933 and 1947) to Seamus Heaney to Viggo Mortensen comment or read. Heaney is brilliant. Mortensen is comic and flatfooted and overblown. In 1933, Eliot sounds high-toned, like a priggish priest. In 1947, Eliot sounds, quite frankly, a little bored.
This is all interesting trivia. Little by little I became an apologist for my gizmo. It eases new possibilities for scholarship. It offers a richness of modes of encounter. Copious notes accompany the text, and they are available immediately. They flit in and out, depending on how you tilt the screen. If you’re reading the app in the horizontal position, the notes scroll alongside the poem, little app-aritions. They helpfully expand at a finger’s tap. Want to know how many times the word “dead” appears in The Burial of the Dead? Search and find all ten, including the title. Curious what that Greek epigraph might mean? It need not be Greek to anyone. Not only the translation and commentary but also a short micro-history of the Sybil at Cumae pops open. You can read and Google at once, without even Googling. Here is the book made porous. Here is symbiosis between text and Cliff Notes, a permeable membrane between reading and interpretation, a choose-your-own-adventure crash course in Eliot. There is no cumbersome flipping.
As I played, I found myself musing that perhaps The Waste Land is especially suited to interactivity. After all, Eliot has never been what you might call accessible. Indeed, The Waste Land delights in obscure allusion. It practically shouts, “Get a dictionary! Get an encyclopedia! I demand exegesis!” Because of this, its annotation has always been something of a given. Herein, perhaps, lies the app’s genius. What is exegesis if not interactive?
As for the bells and whistles, there were many. Some, like Seamus Heaney’s magisterial armchair commentary about his own sense of initial alienation from Eliot, were amazing. Some of them worked backwards to the poem itself—as if one were to watch the cinematic movie history of Dracula before reading the book. In one part of the app, Fiona Shaw performs the poem as a one-woman show in a theatrical collage of voices. She wears a mousy sweater and torn Keds while pacing around a shambling shabby-chic country house in Dublin populated by dusty harpsichords and pseudo-Greek statues. It’s not a bad setting for a “bitch gone in the teeth/ for a botched civilization.” Nevertheless, instead of thinking about T. S. Eliot, or his poem, I found myself thinking about Fiona Shaw and her shoes. I thought Fiona looked slightly chilly in her scarf.
There were treasures. Amid all the filmed commentaries, photo gallery, tips, etc. was my personal favorite, something I kept returning to: the facsimile of Eliot’s typed pages corrected by Pound’s pen. Even wholly dispersed—sent to a hundred thousand shiny ethers—these had an intimacy about them, a revelation of craft. Even technologically rendered, their record of the writing hand, the editing hand, the exploratory scribble—all these clues led back from my disembodied hovering to the thinking bodies that, ninety years ago, made this work.
As I looked at the pixellated scribbles of that first manuscript, I thought about all they represented—the record of an impassioned intimate conversation between two formidable people, two individual minds coming together to think about one grand poem. But even as I looked at these facsimiles, my own newness distracted me. Email popped below my screen into my husband’s box. Little text messages appeared. He would be late to dinner. I could control the stereo and change the music. Had we scheduled the diaper delivery? I was not alone on the floor of a bookstore. I was in the great throng—not Eliot’s great throng, but my own. And, I admit, I felt too near the banalities of my own life to enjoy the masterful way that Eliot had transformed his.
Though I came to like the app better as I settled into it, I was never wholly at home. I couldn’t figure out a way, exactly, to review it as an object or text except to have recourse to a description of my own ambivalence exploring it. Its notes are excellent, its productions learned, its films finely produced, but I still felt thornily lost in the thicket of my own encounter. Was this reading or wasn’t it? Is this production and distribution of simultanaeity a significant form of newness? Is this the future of reading or merely one possible future? Is this a mirror of our own distractedness or a tool that can make our reading more accessible?
While thinking about these questions, I came across a 1939 meditation by William Carlos Williams. Armed with his own feelings of what newness should sound like, Williams (never a fan of Eliot) had this to say about Eliot’s work: “[The poems are] birds eye foods, suddenly frozen at fifty degrees below zero, under pressure, at perfect maturity, immediately after being picked… I am infuriated because the arrest has taken place just at the point of risk, just at the point when the danger threatened, when the tradition might have led to difficult new things. But the God damn liars prefer…freezing… the result is canned to make literature.” I do not want to settle the debate between Williams and Eliot, but in this case merely to steal the image in all its rich problematic promise. How do we make writing and reading experiences that cause us to risk something? Despite its seeming to represent the way the future might take form, I felt that in encountering the app I felt frozen, packaged, arrested, just, just, just at the point of real thought.
In the end, the app provoked confusion and ambivalence, pleasure but also disapproval—not really towards the app, but towards the world that was changing so quickly, towards my uncertainty of what this means. Make it new, said Pound, celebrating the onslaught, setting a course for poetry, for art, for modernism. Pound called us then to engage, to respond to change with change, to make forms that make sense of the flux. Then came Eliot, making it new while mourning the dead, mourning the brokenness of his generation. Reading The Waste Land again comforted me, not because of its newness, but because of its nostalgia, its grief for all that was broken.
* * *The Threepenny Review
Editor and Publisher: Wendy Lesser
Deputy Editor: Jennifer Zahrt