The Wasteland of My Heart

I’m not leaving T.S. Eliot without at least personally coming to terms with his masterpiece “The Wasteland.” There’s no denying it’s an impressive piece, surely Eliot’s “tour de force.” Even if, like me, you’re unwilling to explore the literary allusions as extensively as they demand, you immediately feel the despair implied by the title.

Nor is it as exhausting and time-consuming as it used to be to explore the allusions in the poem because you can go to an
Extensive site on T.S. Eliot’s poem, a nearly 600 page exploration of Eliot’s masterpiece. Of course, if you don’t have a life to live, you can study the poem on your own.

Still, it’s one thing to understand a poem and something quite different to love it. It seems to me that whether you love “The Wasteland” or not depends to a large extent on whether you agree with Eliot’s definition of poetry, as explained in
American Poetry from T. S. Eliot to Allen Ginsberg

The dominant figure in modern poetry from the 1920’s through the middle of the century, in part because of his stature as a critic and publisher, was the poet T. S. Eliot. In his landmark essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” (1919) Eliot defined poetry as an escape from emotion and personality–a definition that subsequent American poets have alternately embraced, argued with, and denounced in such a vigorous fashion that it may be useful to consider it as a linchpin of modernism.

The article, a remarkable short history of modern poetry I heartedly recommend to anyone interested in that sort of thing, goes on to trace the reaction to this remarkable statement through a discussion of some of America’s greatest modern poets.

As I read the essay, it became perfectly clear to me why I have the reaction I do to Eliot’s poetry. When I think back, I suspect that the five pages of footnotes at the end of the poem, not just my initial confusion, are what immediately turned me off to the poem. This is a poem of the “mind” not of the heart.

Now, I admire rational thought as much as anyone. I am, after all, an INTP, and “the central goal of the INTP … (is) …to understand
and seek truth.” But it is really the N, the intuitive, not the T, the thinking aspect, that truly attracted me to poetry in the first place.

It was Thomas Hardy’s vision of an unjust world where pure happenstance and societal restrictions doomed men to unhappy lives that first attracted me to literature and poetry. Hardy’s poetry is many things, but it is not “intellectual.” Of course, I also attended the UW where Theodore Roethke was holding court, and his “work was possessed of a romantic sensibility and vibrant, deeply lyrical language. In fact, at times I have wondered if I had begun my poetic studies in the East instead of the at the UW whether I would have had a totally different attitude towards poetry. Or would I have dismissed it entirely and pursued a career in physics as I had earlier intended.?

For whatever reasons, I am still drawn to the poetry of the heart. It is the emotional appeal of the poetry to my own heart, not any logical argument, that is most likely to convince me of the authenticity of the poet’s vision.