The Wasteland: Poetry and Collaborative Systems
“The strange, the surprising, is of course essential to art; but art has to create a new world, and a new world must have a new structure.”
T.S.Eliot, ‘London Letter’, (Published in The Dial Magazine, 1921)
Collaboration always comes with a threat. But this risk is also the source of its richest reward. The threat we face when we collaborate is the loss of identity.
By necessity any working relationship will involve the emergence of a new creative agent that no-one will have full control over. This is the collaboration itself; a system with its own volition, direction and tastes. This system requires its partners to negotiate with it; perhaps yield to it. It asks them to test their aesthetic decisions and justify their choices. By necessity, collaboration forces new ways of thinking and making. It pitches participants into a situation of creative antagonism in which everyone cajoles each other into producing what nobody is quite expecting.
Between 1921 and 1922 TS Eliot and Ezra Pound worked together on the poem which would become the signal work of modernist poetry. The Wasteland was produced by the creative antagonism of two writers working together. Eliot acknowledged his debt by dedicating the poem in 1925 to “Il miglior fabbro” (“the better craftsman”).
The annotated manuscripts make for astonishing reading.
They show how the poem developed from a negotiation between the multiple comments of Eliot and Pound (with additional editorial comments from Valerie, Eliot’s wife and editor.) Under Pound’s guidance whole sections were cut, moved around and re-sculpted. The title changes from “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” The whole first page goes – cancelled by with a single pencil line. Throughout we can see how the verses took shape by being meticulously crafted into a self-contained world where everything works together with elegant precision. What is left over from this conversation is a poem in which it’s unclear as to who deleted or added what; and who should take full authorial credit. We can’t be sure where one writer’s voice begins or another ends. The manuscript can be seen variously through different perceptual modes. Its a visual tabula rasa embedded with the multiple scrawled indices of poetic creation and a collage overlaid with the scraps and fragments of reality that have been pasted onto its surface. But it’s also a refrain of multiple voices that sometimes negate each other and yet sometimes reverberate in a brittle chorus. Much like the final poem itself there is a deep-seated ambiguity of authorship and identity as multiple voices clamour to be heard. What have been rendered uncertain are the relationships between the idioms of: high and low-brow; classical and vernacular; modernity and tradition.
Something of the spirit of the authors’ relationship is revealed in a note by Pound on a handwritten section which reads: “Bad- but can’t attack until I get typescript.”
It reveals an interlocutor who is eager to engage but also pass judgment and “attack” the weakness of their friend. Pound slashes out Eliot’s use of the word “perhaps” and writes “perhaps be damned” and “if you know, know damned well or else you don’t.”
A lot of the text is dismissed as flabby or unnecessary with comments like: “verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it.”
Pound both consoles and chastises Eliot with the various “OKs” and “Echts” scrawled thorough the text. He takes him to task for the “demotic” use of words like “abominable” and challenges him to resist cliché and commonplace. “Too easy” Pound warns of a phrase too easily reached. Another is “too loose.” Laziness, it seems, is not to be tolerated. Pound takes Eliot to task for using the word “may” with the scathing comment: “make up yr. mind” and is contemptuous of the equivocation suggested by the use of the word perhaps: “perhaps be damned” he pithily notes. Elsewhere we can see that Eliot rewrites and rewrites until he gets the comment “OK”
The poem, clearly, would not be anything like its published version without these conversations. In a different context it would be easy to read such cajoling through the logic of power and authority. Such language could be read as hurtful and unproductive; undermining and antagonistic. However what we can see instead is them both using language to build a new world around themselves which only they inhabit.
Much of the vocabulary is incomprehensible to outsiders. For example one comment seems to be about the rhythm of a line: “3 lines Too tum-pum at a stretch” a further comment asks: “Why this Blot and Scutcheon between 1922 and lil.’”
Another remark warns that the line “Filled all the desert with inviolable voice” is “too penty” which is ambiguous and the contemporary reader can only hazard a guess as to what it really means. Is it a recommendation to disrupt the pentamic beats of repeated syllables perhaps? Or is this a warning that the “inviolable” voice mimics the stridency of the Pentecostal imagery of renewal that Eliot used elsewhere but is rejecting in The Wasteland. We can never be sure. This is the private language of intimate communication. It talks of shared values and practices. It is a new system of communication that is being brought into being through their collaboration. This is the system of The Wasteland; a system that is also a world unto itself.
[quotes from T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Ed. Valerie Eliot, (London: Faber and Faber, 1971)]