Dada “Poetry”?

I was struck by two things in the Alfred Stieglitz inspired 291 vol. 2. First, with my limited knowledge of Dada, I always assumed it to be French art movement. Yet, the synopsis of 291 from Blue Mountain lists artists from different parts of Europe and America, and says, “affiliated with the New York Dada.” I’m sure my ignorance led me to assume this, but I find it interesting that Dada was, though short-lived, an international movement, which might contribute to its jumbled nature and qualities of intersection that lend it original characteristics.

I was also struck by the “poem” in vol. 2 on page 3. Let me transcribe a portion:




Relief.  Many minds, many voices would have been unen-

durable to-day.

What a restful voice his.

Silence of snow-covered roof-tops.  New York is best from

the back and from above.

He is telling me this ——- laughing clowns ——-

to find out whether I have dared to live. ——-


—- one

—— two

——- three ——

How can he bear to speak of it if it was real to him?


This section, and the other parts of the poem — which is balanced with drawings of shapes and lines, drawn logos, and other interruptions — reminded me of the style and voice The Waste Land is written with. Though I find the above poem, which I believe is “Mental Reactions” by Agnes Ernst Meyer, to be both more straight forward and surreal, which may seem contradictory. Here, a singular voice seems to be speaking about a concrete place and another person, how unendurable NYC is, and how the man’s voice is peaceful. The surrealist elements come into play with lines such as, “laughing clowns,” and, “How can he bear to speak of it if it was real to him?” which seems to me like a silly, nonsensical thing to wonder. This magazine was dated at “1915-04,” predating Eliot’s magnum opus, but not his own poetics. I like this Dada poem, and if you haven’t you should check out Stieglitz’s photography, he’s a cool dude.




Breaking the Mold

I’m interested in the publication history and reception of Eliot’s poetry — as presented by Ackryod. To have the support of minds such as Bertrand Russell and Ezra Pound shows the early promise Eliot had, but it seems that during the period of chapters 3 and 4, the public wasn’t fully convinced of Eliot’s modernist poems. I wonder if the same is still true for The Waste Land today? I meet a lot of people who don’t ‘get’ poetry, whether traditional or modernist, and I know a lot of poets who don’t desire to understand or like The Waste Land. Ackryod points out in ch. 3, “The little volume provoked such a [little] response in part because of its unappealing or at least ‘unpoetic’ subject matter, but also because the poetry had no identifiable single voice behind it. […]  [I]n late nineteen- and early-twentieth-century English poetry the idea of a sustained ‘tone’ was still central. That is precisely the reason why the poetry of the years before Eliot seem so unsubstantial or simply decorative” (79). Though Ackryod is discussing Eliot’s first volume of poems — Prufrock — the same lack of a singular voice and sustained tone is true of The Waste Land.

Ezra Pound notes that Eliot’s development as a modern poet was individualistic, and though his first volume was published under Pound’s supervision, as The Waste Land would later be edited by him as well, Eliot broke from traditional English poetics on his own. Pound recounts: “‘He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own’” (56). I wonder if Pound’s influence on Eliot accounts for some of the aspects many dislike about The Waste Land, such as the classicist elements. Eliot was never a true imagist or vorticist, so I question if Pound and Wyndham Lewis fully convinced him that modern literature needed to be reimbued with classical Europe ideals — though these aspects are certainly present in The Waste Land. It’s certainly clear now that Eliot’s sexual frustration, over intellectualization, and unhappiness shaped his writing. I find it interesting that once he settled at the bank he found creative freedom. It also seems he might have not made it without Pound. He was a truly individual man in his ideas and writing, and I’d bet that’s why his work not only survives, but stands out among the other modernist poems.


The first time I read the line “O O O O that Shakespearian Rag / It’s so elegant / So intelligent” I figured that Eliot was poking fun at the reader by overtly alluding to Shakespeare when so many of the other allusions are mainly obscure lines lifted from his plays. In Eliot’s time, I assume this passage is something contemporary readers would have easily recognized and connected with, even if they didn’t know their Tempest, Anthony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, or Titus Andronicus. In that way, these lines date the poem. Shakespeare is, in a sense, timelessly engrained into western culture, but ragtime music, though new and relevant in Eliot’s day, is now dated. As other have pointed out, this connects the ancient/old to the modern. I like that this passage takes place in the husband’s head, and I love the sound of it. If Dr. Drouin hadn’t sung it, I would not read it as I do now, but it certainly has a singsong quality.

In my book, I don’t remember when, I wrote “distillation into cheap entertainment.” I’m not sure how I originally meant this, but the reference to this song does reveal the ways in which entertainment changes over time, from Shakespearian drama to ragtime music. This is the sort of song that was sung at music halls or pantomimes in London during Eliot’s time. An uneducated solider drafted into WWI may not be able to connect to Shakespeare, but he can to songs such as these. And even if one were educated who went through such trauma, their idea of entertainment might be diluted or perverted; by being disillusioned with or critical of the heavy topics of early plays. Sound is important to the rest of the poem and this is a prominent and lyrical example.

RE: Sex and Violence, Something Lost

Considering Ovid’s stories in comparison to The Waste Land it occurred to me that Eliot’s poem seems to make a progression from the personal in the first three sections, to the universal in the fifth section. The personal and the universal, or mythic, are certainly interspersed throughout the poem; but in first three sections Eliot gives us individual characters and stories to latch onto, such as, “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king” and “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives” (99, 218). Both examples are not quick allusions, but stories that continue for several lines of the poem. In the first example, Philomel’s rape and metamorphosis is summarized in 5 lines, and is referenced later by Eliot; in the second example, more than a page is taken to adapt Tiresias’ story for the modern age. As both Xandra and Caleb point out, these stories by Ovid and The Waste Land’s use of them concern sex and violence. Along that line of thought, I believe that much of Eliot’s poem, if not the main theme, is the problem of vengeance or reparations. Caleb pointed to violence’s “irrevocability” in his post, and I agree that the violent acts in these stories cannot be changed or reversed, which is why the characters’ must undergo metamorphosis, and why vengeance is important to Ovid, and as we will see, peace to Eliot.

I believe that the broad scope and universality of “What the Thunder Said,” supports my claim. We do get language that hints at the individual — “I,” “you,” “my” (360, 365, 430) — but these vague characters are cast within a story of larger magnitude, and their stories are not specific, but take place in a mythic continuity that carries through the entire section. Lastly, towards the end of the poem, Eliot reminds us of Philomel — “O swallow swallow” (428) — and in the third to last line says, “Hieronymo’s mad againe” (431). My interpretation of this is that both the personal aspects of sex and violence, and their universal implications, are presented by Eliot as an endless cycle, “mad againe,” and that the only way to break from such a cycle is not vengeance, as the ancients like Ovid would have us think, but through “Shantih,” which translates as, “The peace which passeth understanding” (433). For Eliot, this has both a personal and universal context — his breakdown and the first world war.

WWI and Grail Legends

From Ritual to Romance helped elucidate not only allusions The Waste Land makes but the way in which it references ancient texts. The connections between the Grail legends and the Rig-Velda, though parallels, are said by Weston not to be “the direct sources of the Grail legend” (Weston 30). Eliot is entirely deliberate in his parallels, but in the same way he is updating ancient ideas originating from nature cults and adapting them for the modern age. One such parallel is the three cultural identities of the heroes: Gawain (English), Perceval (French), and Parzival (German). In addition to the poem’s various references to these cultures, languages, and their myths, Eliot’s references call-upon the main powers behind WWI (Germany, France, and England). Just as Weston points out the ancient to Medieval connection, Eliot connects Eastern mythos to the struggles of European modernity.

Like the “three cases the misfortunes and wasting of the land are the result of war” (Weston 19), WWI left Germany is a deep state of starvation due to the British food blockades. Eliot writes in part V, “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?” (Eliot 423-425). While this is a vague reference to starvation, it obviously calls upon the aftermath of WWI, and certainly references Weston’s book. These parallels are important because Eliot not only utilize Weston’s ideas thematically, but also conducts the same ancient to Medieval, in Eliot’s case, modern connections Weston writes about.

“A heap of broken images”

Before I purchased my book, it had been awhile since I read The Waste Land, so I want to post about a line in part one that jumped out at me right away, in addition to what this section makes me anticipate. Line 22, “A heap of broken images,” seems to be an apt description of the poem as a whole. First, it is reminiscent of a heap of rubble left after war, and to me, conjures up an image of heaps of bodies at the Somme trenches. Second, this isn’t to say Eliot’s poem is not interconnected, but that the images are broken (separated, disconnected) and meant to be assembled by the reader. I think this is entirely intentional on Eliot’s part; his control over imagery is extraordinary and he places images precisely where he wants them in the poem. If he had wanted to write a poem that wasn’t broken, or not about broken things, he would have. The line above (22) is speaking to the “Son of man” (20), but it is written in a way that at first seems to address the reader: “You cannot say, or guess, for you only know / A heap of broken images” (21-2). Here, Eliot’s use of “you” implies directly to the reader what they will be working with for the duration of his poem; it doesn’t take long for the reader experience the shifting “heap of broken images,” jumping from one vision to the next.

What primarily makes me curious in part one is the mention of “pearls” on line 48. After this caught my eye, I was made even more curious when the line was echoed again in part two on line 125. From this, I wanted to know more about tarot (which I know nothing about, other than the images). I anticipate that we’ll learn more about the cards. Until then, it will be hard to unpack this section without any knowledge on the significance of these broken images or their meaning.