April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring and rain.
It is March, almost April, and the year feels like a spool of days spliced out of order, leaping treacherously from sun to ice to sun to rain to snow. In the office where I advise students on academic opportunities and college admissions, one of my co-workers talks endlessly about meteorology. When I was a high school senior applying to colleges, I attended an event where an admissions officer asked the crowd, “April is the cruelest month—do you know why Eliot said that?” I had not yet read The Waste Land, and I did not understand the appreciative chuckle that followed her response: “It’s the month when we send out rejection letters.” Now, I am waiting for my students’ results, and I find the joke a little funny. As March slips towards April, I host tutoring sessions and read practice essays for the AP exams.
This week, I received a bewildered email from one of the students I tutor, asking for advice on an essay about Eliot’s The Waste Land. She had been assigned to write a preface to the essay, but, she wrote, “I am ashamed to say I do not understand the poem clearly.” She had painstakingly translated the passages in German and French, read and reread Eliot’s footnotes, but still felt lost in the poem, disoriented by the scattered dialogue and sudden shifts between scenes. She wrote, “There are a lot of puzzles for me.”
The Waste Land is nothing if not puzzling—and yet, when I read the poem for the first time in my very first college literature class, I was enthralled by the idea that a poem could be full of so many clues and references. My first instinct was to play the role of literary detective, cross referencing footnotes and translating foreign words. I felt that I was being initiated into a world of academics and literary critics, people who knew how to decode Eliot’s hidden messages. As it turned out, this was and wasn’t true. Since that first reading of Eliot, I have learned to stop looking for a single answer hidden in a literary work. The Waste Land isn’t a puzzle to solve; it is a world to navigate.
At my desk, I pull up The Waste Land on the Poetry Foundation website and begin rereading the poem for the first time in years. It’s as thrilling and overwhelming and confounding as I remember, and I feel the poem’s places and characters and languages rush and blur around me. I remember learning that Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” and the poem is indeed a jumble of voices, impressions of people from a Europe that no longer exists.
There is first voice, the one who tells us of April’s cruelty. There is Marie, who speaks in snatches of English and German, the kind of aristocratic woman who, faced with a populist rebellion, might have fled her summer home with her diamonds sewn into the lining of her petticoat:
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, ech deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled […] In the mountains, there you feel free,
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
There is the fortune teller, Madame Sosostris, laying out tarot cards, and the soldier, returned from war, who searches for a face he knows in the crowded London streets. There are neighbors whispering about abortion, words freighted with blame and guilt:
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
It’s remarkable to me how Eliot jumps from story to story, and how much he manages to communicate through fragmented memories and snippets of dialogue. As a reader, I love this multiplicity of voices; as a writer, I envy Eliot’s ability to ‘do’ the voices so deftly, to create characters who are both recognizable and just out of reach.
I think about Eliot in 1922, writing of the London that he calls an “Unreal City,” and I imagine Europe after the First World War, shaken and fraught, “a heap of broken images.” How did this poem feel to people who believed they were standing on the precipice of modernity, facing a new age of cruelty, carelessness, and thrilling possibilities? And then again, that feeling may not be so different from the uncertainties we feel in 2018. Eliot writes about memory, poverty, war, and casually apathetic sex. Our world is still shaped by messy and powerful forces. And though we enjoy the choices that modern life allows us, we, like Eliot’s characters, can be paralyzed by the sense that there is only one right choice to make. “What shall I do now? Whatever shall I do?” a voice in The Waste Land asks, and I hear myself, uncertain, frazzled, always rushing.
I think about my poetry professor and her lectures. She never told us the poem had a single answer, hidden and waiting, but I looked for one because I wanted the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. Now, I try to read the poem as landscape of words, a city to wander through and get lost in. I am in awe of the vast, opaque world that Eliot has created, and which he reveals to us in flashes. I ache for Eliot’s characters, who are adrift in the Waste Land, unable to find meaning in their lives. I ache for myself.
“I am ashamed to say I do not understand the poem clearly,” my student wrote. When I write back to her, I offer explanations about confusing lines and send her articles on Modernism and symbolism and World War I, but I also tell her there is no need to feel ashamed. I want her to understand that she can love a poem without knowing, with certainty, what every line means, that the possibility of multiple interpretations and layers of meaning are what make a poem more than the sum of its parts. I love that, in The Waste Land, I’m never on solid ground as a reader. Every time I feel I’ve begun to understand a passage, Eliot’s anecdotes and fragments shift and fade like a ghostly mirage, and I’m left with more questions. I was once drawn to the poem by my desire to decode its meaning, but now, when I revisit the poem, I revel in its ambiguities.