I feel in just a little celebratory mood at the moment. I’ve just finished my write-through of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with the last 5 pieces written this morning. I know regular visitors to the Blog here will know, but I’ll just recap what I think I’ve been doing and explore what might come next.
The Waste Land poem by Eliot is some 434 lines in length. It’s an enormous thing in its scope and I was attracted to the poem for a number of reasons:
- I had just finished a happy experience in writing and producing book form my A Love Poetry Trilogy, which featured work by Amy Lowell, Walt Whitman and T.S. Eliot as inspiration and prompt. The Eliot poem ‘The Love SOng of J. Alfred Prufrock’ intrigued me in its style and I felt an affinity with the work and with Eliot in general – a free verse (mostly) modernist poet. I developed a bit of a taste for his work.
- The challenge of writing the Trilogy was a little bit accidental – one idea leading to another, leading to three poetry collections. Nice, but I felt it might be more instructive to actually set a task and deliberately move through a big work, seeing where it might lead me writing-wise.
- I looked at a few poems before deciding, but The Waste Land has an enormous reputation and is such a big-bodied poem that it ended up being irresistable.
I read the poem fairly shallowly – to get a feel for it, not to understand it in any depth – and I read a few scholarly critiques in the same way. What I most wanted was to be able to set a mood that worked in with the original poem – to the best of my ability at least. I then set up my document in and allocated phrases from the poem to serve as prompts for my new writing. The phrases I used were based on spur of the moment decisions about whether there was enough meat and potato in the phrase for me to work with, rather than whether it was exactly the emphasis that the original poem/Eliot might have been pursuing. That approach is probably a bit barbaric for anyone who reveres Eliot, but I was pursuing my own challenge. My arrangement came to 308 prompts for new poems, and I commenced work on August 30th, 2020.
Early on I was given a warning by my most trusted advisor that I had to write the truth – I couldn’t just make up any old thing so that I had achieved a poem. What an interesting demand! I spent a lot of time pondering that, and the role of poetry as a truth-telling medium. Can you write a serious poem without including some of your own truth within it? I don’t think so.
The work has taken a very meandering path – just as The Waste Land poem does itself. I haven’t re-read the early work, but my recollection suggests that the then still relatively early-stage Covid pandemic featured, with its lockdowns and images of mass graves and despair. A journey back in time to a point 30 years ago popped up, followed by a highly introspective section that I was quite unhappy with at the time – I don’t know what reaction there might be on re-reading.
And on through the five main sections of The Waste Land, each section, and many subsections triggering a new slant from my own work. The principal sections of the poem (for my purposes) are:
- The Burial Of The Dead
- A Game Of Chess
- The Fire Sermon
- Death By Water
- What The Thunder Said
Somewhere in the middle of the section ‘Death By Water‘ a couple of characters appeared – a mariner and a white whale, for some reason stranded and dying in the middle of the desert. These characters recurred and eventually (after I’d begun on ‘What The Thunder Said‘ I decided I needed to pursue them through the rest of the work. That is what I’ve completed this morning.
For what it is worth, mt The Waste Land project has extended to a little more than 50,000 words. The White Whale component is around 11,000 words. Quite substantial, and I am thinking that I need to treat the White Whale (working reference only) as a verse novel. A little first for me.
From here, I am thinking that I will extract all of the White Whale to treat it in its own right. I’ll go back and see if there are some prompts/phrases that I could or should have used in developing the story line and fill in the blanks, if required. Smooth out the whole.
If I find I have the energy to dive back in to the bigger project again, I’ll look to write new work to fill the gaps left by the absence of Whale poems.
After that? Most likely I will package up the overall work into a number of book-sized collections (it sits at near 800 pages, as is). I’ll then give them a place on my bookshelves while I move on to other projects. There may be some elements worth releasing as books in their own right, but I don’t assume that at this point.
It’s been quite a project. Quite a bit to go, but I felt it would be nice to put my thoughts together here and share them with you.