It’s not my favourite Eliot poem – that would be Gerontion, in spite of its implicit anti-semitism – but I like reading The Waste Land, because it always sets my thoughts off in several different directions. The references, allusions, interjections in languages other than English, the abrupt changes in register, are there for a purpose. The poem builds itself up as an edifice, through the pasting together of sequences of stanzas cemented by seemingly unconnected fragments. They are not random.
It seems to me that what Eliot reflected, all those years ago, is a recognition that consciousness is not linear. The context of our everyday thought processes – mine anyway – is a strange world where the observable present coexists with the past (memory) and the future (daydreaming, wishing, desire), and where reality and fantasy constantly shift and re-balance. When I think about something I don’t go from A to B; I explore alternative scenarios and inner narratives. I may not even end up at B, but at some other point, or at nowhere at all.
In terms of poetry, the A to B route is the road not taken, certainly not by Eliot. The Imagists – Pound et al – added layers of images to sustain an overall emotion, or the flow of a poem. Joyce and Beckett did similar things in prose, producing the ‘stream of consciousness’ effect of Ulysses and Molloy. Looking at the way the brain processes information, the left hemisphere is the one where language, vocabulary and logic predominate; the right side is where symbols, images, music are dealt with. We all need both sides of the brain to make sense of the world and ourselves – thought is bilateral, and meaning ultimately derives from both sides, plus the front and the back. Balance is all.
Is there a central character in The Waste Land? No, the poem builds in several voices. What happens in the poem? Well, life happens, stuttering along, whacked by memories, inhabited by possibilities, like my walks along Dunbar’s Queens Road, looking at the sea.