After 75 years, poetry no longer a 'Waste Land' Postmodernism: Eliot's grim view, that of Modernism, gives way to -- among other things -- love.

The Argument

March 30, 1997|By CLARINDA HARRISS | CLARINDA HARRISS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

1997 marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." This 434-line poem stands as a benchmark of International Modernism, that early 20th-century efflorescence of writers, musicians, visual artists including Picasso, Stravinsky, Beckett, and Joyce among many others. Eliot's most influential work said, in essence, that the world is nothing but a smoking ash heap. Several generations of poets growing up in Eliot's tall shadow agreed.

Many poets writing today would not. I'm one of them. We say that the world's a mess, yes - messier than Eliot imagined. An ashheap, no. More a compost heap: disgusting decay studded with a few still-viable bits, all cooking down into something that supports life even as it stinks.

"The Waste Land's" disjointed style is its message, embodying the breakdown of the world's spiritual connective tissue. It juxtaposes the rich and the lowly; the drawing room, barroom and stale one-room flat; bloody mythologies, historical murders, little murders of mind and soul. Ashes are among Eliot's emblematic substances.

Coming in from the literally smoking landscape of World War I, Eliot, along with much of his artistic generation, encountered - far worse - an ash heap within. The soul was the site of the final wasteland. Ordinary folks' respite from the damage outdoors - ,, friendship, work, sex, affection, the creature comforts - were corrupted beyond redemption by the rotted and dried-up soul.

April, in "The Waste Land's" famous first-line metaphor, was "the cruelest month" because what little life managed to erupt from the soul's desert was sick and stunted.

Eliot was 33 when he wrote "The Waste Land"; the 20th century had just turned 22. Maybe concentrating on individual spiritual desolation is a luxury of the young. (No wonder my angst-riddled first book, published when I was 32, ended up in so many garage sales.) War-weary, war-torn, hungry, the century emerged from World War I seeing physical, social and political disasters on a global scale for the first time. It has been doing so ever since, of course, and at an accelerating rate.

Today's poets have not failed to notice: a recent issue of any mainstream poetry magazine is likely to include poems about AIDS, racism, street crime, mass environmental suicide, racism, torture and war. Relentless, enervating, all-enveloping ills - yet ills that lie outside the individual artist's psyche, no matter how deeply they affect it.

By comparison with the disasters outside, the spirit inside actually seems benign. Like Anne Sexton in her poem "Live," I am "not an Eichmann." When I write about love these days, I mean love, not steamy hate or passionate ambivalence. Love has, in fact, rejoined the catalog of viable topics for poetry. All sorts of love.

Maxine Kumin's and Elizabeth Spires' most recent books contain achingly intense though entirely unsentimental poems about children. The larger part of a recent issue of Poetry focused on baby boomer-poets' tough love for their parents. Adrienne Rich portrays a convincing picture of domestic warmth surrounding her and the woman she loves.

The latest collection by Robert Hass (poet laureate of the United States), "Sun Under Wood" (Ecco Press, 1996), actually celebrates a functional heterosexual marriage, one heated by physical love, intelligence, creative frictions and ordinary Middle American comforts.

In a radically different way, Jack Gilbert, in "The Great Fires" (Knopf, 1995), celebrates marriage: His graphic depictions of what it meant to care for his wife, Michiko, during her terminal illness tell us she was powerfully loved.

Whimper, no bang

As I dig through my den's waist-high stacks of new books of poetry, I notice that a handful of writers seems to be responding quite specifically to some of Eliot's despairing phrases. The often-quoted end of "The Hollow Men," a continuation of the waste land theme that Eliot published in 1925, says, "This is the way the world ends ... /Not with a bang but a whimper."

I flip open Clarence Major's 1996 anthology, "The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry" (HarperCollins). Cornelius Eady's "The Dance" creates a life-loving persona who says, "When the world ends,/ I will be in a red dress./ When the world ends,/... I will shake like the/ semis on the interstate,/ And I will shake like the tree/ kissed by lightning,/ And I will move; the earth will move/too,/ and I will move, with the remains of/my last paycheck in my pocket./ It will be Friday night/ And I will be in a red dress."

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