T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land is 100 years old this month. Celebrate its birthday by reading it if you never have, or re-reading it if you have. This weird AF poem is one of my favorites—I encountered it as an English major in college, as it's a staple of Modern Literature courses. It was like a puzzle to figure out; I loved the rabbit holes it sent me down, as I researched all of the notes provided by my Norton Anthology—I wanted to understand every allusion. I didn't, of course, and didn't fully understand the poem, either, but I was entranced by its complexity and utterly bizarre, prophetic, apocalyptic visions. Even if I didn't understand everything it was trying to say, I grasped the feeling of the poem–it felt chaotic, confusing, despairing, ruinous, frustrating.
Now, 100 years later, the poem still resonates, perhaps even more so, given the current state of the world. James Parker has just written a piece for The Atlantic, called "T.S. Eliot saw all this coming," that revisits the poem a century later. He argues that "one hundred years after the publication of The Waste Land, its vision has never been more terrifying." Early in the piece, Parker introduces the poem:
Imagine, if you will, a poem that incorporates the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the blowing up of the Kerch Bridge, Grindr, ketamine, The Purge, Lana Del Rey, the next three COVID variants, and the feeling you get when you can't remember your Hulu password. Imagine that this poem—which also mysteriously contains all of recorded literature—is written in a form so splintered, so jumpy, but so eerily holistic that it resembles either a new branch of particle physics or a new religion: a new account, at any rate, of the relationships that underpin reality.
Now imagine this poem making news, going viral, becoming the poem—hailed over here, reviled over there—such that everybody is obliged to react to it, and every poem yet unwritten is already, inevitably, altered by it. And now imagine that the author of this poem—the poet himself—is a haunted-looking commuter whom you half-recognize from the subway platform.
You're getting close to The Waste Land.
After diving into an analysis of the five sections of the poem, Parker ends the piece by considering the poem's relevance, 100 years later:
Okay. so where are we now, 100 years later, with The Waste Land ? The sludge is rising; the flames are rising; the demagogues are getting louder and the brownshirts are cracking their knuckles.
The poem's discontinuities no longer startle us. Rather, they feel like home. All the sections, all the voices, all the tones—they hang together like … like … like "Bohemian Rhapsody." Like an episode of Rick and Morty. Like a conspiracy theory.
Our inner condition, meanwhile, has not altered. We're all trailing our lines in the dark water. We've all sustained the secret wound. You've got your holy grail, and I've got mine. And whether we can ever find them in this lifetime, our respective grails—get our hands on them and apply them to our suffering—I don't know.
The Waste Land was written by a very disturbed man, a fastidious man possessed by visions of squalor, a man unable to distinguish the fall of civilization from the fall of his own psyche. It was written in the after-roar of one war, with another boiling up on the horizon. It was marginal testimony—imagine its fate without the encouragement of Pound—that became instantly central.
Why? Because it couldn't be denied. Because it was brain-thunder. Because it was magic, and it ripped the shaman apart. Because it itemizes our illnesses like no poem before or since, offering nothing, nothing at all, but the stark elation of seeing the thing as it is.
I highly recommend reading Parke's piece, and then re-reading The Waste Land.