How Faber’s App Rescues Eliot’s Masterpiece from the Waste Land of Print

Reviewed in this essay: T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land for iPad. Faber and Touch Press, 2011.

Listen to the author read this piece: [audio: issue3/hammond.mp3]

It is difficult to describe the shock I experienced this summer on receiving an email informing me that (a) the venerable and comfortably out-of-touch publisher Faber and Faber had teamed with TouchPress to release—of all things—an iPad version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; and (b) this iPad app had become an international best-seller. Verification of these facts in the iTunes store led to deepening shock. There it was, despite its un-app-like price of $13.99 and gargantuan 950-megabyte size, in the #1 position among worldwide best-selling book apps; and there also it was, perched atop Angry Birds and iFart as the best-selling iPad app of any kind in the U.K. My shock was not like that which a Puritan might experience on catching a glimpse of an exposed ankle. It was not even like the shock of a Puritan who learns that hell has frozen over. It was the shock of a Puritan who learns that there is no hell at all. My shock was existential.

Let me explain. I have, in my brief career as a teacher, become used to thinking of The Waste Land as a poem that requires two things: careful explication and passionate defending. Without my expert guidance (a teacher-Virgil to my pupil-Dantes, if you catch the reference), I thought my poor students would become lost in the poem’s foreign languages and learned allusions, its often gloomy tone, its polyphony of disagreeing voices, and its lack of transitions between sections. All of which led to my second presumption: that my students must think a poem that requires so much hand-holding is needlessly difficult and alienating, and therefore charmless and elitist. Since I myself consider the poem none of these things, I thought I must always play the double role of Virgil and Jackie Chiles: both guide and advocate.

Thus my shock on learning that people were going out, of their own accord, without my guidance, without having listened to any of my lectures, without the threat of receiving a bad mark if they did not do so—and buying The Waste Land, in droves. In this state of shock I decided to make a purchase of my own. I bought an iPad. What I found, when I had done so and installed the app, was once again revelatory. For now I was like the Puritan who discovered that while there was no hell, there was still a heaven.

When I began to use the Waste Land app, you see, I immediately understood why so many people were buying it. While it presented the same poem, it presented it in a very different light. The Waste Land no longer seemed gloomy or even particularly difficult. It no longer seemed like the sort of thing that required a preceptor’s active intervention for its enjoyment. As I tapped and slid my way through the app’s many corners, I came progressively to the most shocking discovery of all: my defensive posture in explaining and advocating for The Waste Land for the past several years had been necessitated not by intrinsic features of the poem—a few too many passages in Sanskrit or Italian, a few too many quotations from St. Augustine or Wagner—so much as by the medium in which the poem has been transmitted since its appearance in 1922: the medium of print. What the Waste Land app has made me see is that if the poem had somehow, anachronistically, originally appeared in electronic form, it would have a very different reputation today. The Waste Land app’s marvelous feat, as I have come to understand it, is to have rescued a vibrant and dynamic poem from a print medium that had entombed and shrouded it, for nearly a century.

Take, for example, what the app has done with the poem’s notorious notes. Though these notes, written by Eliot himself, were intended to serve the above-mentioned purpose of explication—to make the poem more accessible by elucidating its allusions, structure, and symbolism—they have in fact played a very considerable role in scaring away potential readers. This is because they scream pedantry—for there is something truly offensive in the notion that a poet would write a poem too difficult to understand without critical apparatus, and then supply that apparatus himself.

For these offensive footnotes we most definitely have the medium of print to blame. When the poem first appeared—in the pages of the periodicals The Dial in the US and The Criterion in the UK—it did not have any notes. The notes were suggested by the publisher Horace Liveright, who wanted to bring the poem out as a book. He wanted notes for two reasons: first, to serve as a sort of marketing gimmick to entice readers who had already purchased The Waste Land in periodical form to buy it again as a book (“Mystified by that long poem in The Dial? All conundrums explained in the book version! Comprehension guaranteed!”); and second, to bulk the poem up, to make it longer and more book-like (having presumably already fiddled with the font size, spacing, and margins). Asked to provide them, Eliot complied, though he later regretted his decision. “I have sometimes thought of getting rid of these notes,” he said, “but now they can never be unstuck.” Not only have Eliot’s notes proven tenacious, they have also attracted other notes by other editors; as a result, to read the poem today in an anthology like the Norton is to experience something akin to reading the Talmud, surrounded on all sides by notes, commentaries, and meta-commentaries.

To the problem of the notes the iPad app has a very simple solution. It has not unstuck them, per se, but it has made them unstickable. If you are interested in notes, the iPad app has plenty: it has all of Eliot’s original notes and many others besides. But if you are not interested in notes, you have only to tap a button, and they disappear. (The app subtly, and rightly, discourages the use of these notes by making them unavailable in the more natural “portrait” reading orientation.) To see the poem as it appeared to its first readers—without notes—is to experience it in a really new way. Without the paraphernalia of explanation surrounding it, it is a much less forbidding text—one that seems to invite you to explore its mysteries on your own, and to trust in your success.

That is not the only reason that most readers will choose to set the explanatory notes to “off.” For the app provides a much more inviting and helpful form of commentary, in the form of numerous short video “Perspectives” from a diverse cast of poets, novelists, academic, and pop singers. Seamus Heaney tells you about how, over a long period, he came to understand and be excited by Eliot; Craig Raine tells you why that title, The Waste Land, is really, really good; Jeanette Winterson explains how reading The Waste Land is a bit like tuning through radio stations; hardcore/folk singer Frank Turner shows you his Waste Land tattoo and explains, somewhat inanely, why T. S. Eliot is a lot like Bob Dylan. Less important than the specific content of what they say—and it varies from embarrassing to luminous—is the revelation that these people really like Eliot, and totally love The Waste Land. Their enthusiasm for the poem serves the inestimably important function of inviting you to dive in yourself, to discover in it your own sources of enthusiasm. This is something one cannot say about a footnote; however informative or accurate it might have been, a footnote has never made anyone excited.1

Another genuine innovation in the Waste Land app is its use of audio. Next to its button for toggling notes, the app has another to activate one of six oral readings of the poem—by Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen (!), Irish actress Fiona Shaw, and Eliot himself (two readings are provided, from 1933 and 1947). The inclusion of these readings is of particular significance for The Waste Land, for a few reasons. At the time of its publication, in the 1920s, a debate raged about the so-called “Death of Poetry,” a primary cause of which was taken to be the progressive transformation of poetry from an oral to a graphic form. In his 1925 Thamyris; or, Is There a Future for Poetry, R. C. Trevelyan read the history of poetry from Homer to Eliot as a fall from sound and sense to sight and nonsense, and cast the printing press as among the chief villains: asking whether the history of poetry was “a deplorable tale of decadence, a progressive impoverishment and deterioration, through senility and second-childishness, towards an unlamented death in a bastard and graceless prose,” he concluded that it was. In the years that followed, many poets expressed their hope that new technologies like radio and the LP would return poetry to its oral roots. In a 1938 letter to the director of the BBC, Herbert Read wrote, “We must forget that poetry was ever printed; we must return to and begin again at the bardic stage.”

While radio has failed in an appreciable way to carry out Read’s request, the Waste Land app shows the immense promise of electronic forms. The key, I think, lies in the way the app combines media. Unlike a radio or LP performance, here you get more than just the audio; in fact, the way that you start the oral performance is by selecting one of the six readers and then tapping on a particular text-rendered line of the poem, which the app then reads to you, and continues reading from that point until you ask it to stop. If you want to hear the line a second time, you tap on it again. If you want to hear it in a different voice, you select a different reader and tap the line once more. This amount of control over the readings—the ability to start and stop wherever one likes, and instantly to switch between readers—may be relatively simple from a technological perspective, but presents a genuinely novel and surprising way of experiencing the poem. (When I demonstrated this feature in a course I taught on “The Digital Text” at the University of Toronto—choosing Viggo Mortensen’s decidedly un-Prufrockian, read-from-the-seat-of-a-Harley-Davidson version—my two hundred students burst out in spontaneous laughter, such was their delighted surprise. The line itself, needless to say, was far from hilarious.)

This focus on oral performance works especially well with The Waste Land, since it is a poem that demands so emphatically to be read aloud—and indeed only really makes sense once you begin to consider it in the light of oral performance. As Eliot’s original title for the poem, He Do the Police in Different Voices, reminds us, the basic unit of The Waste Land is the voice. But though the poem is built from multiple distinct voices, it does not tell us where they begin or end or what each is like, nor does it provide a dramatis personae or indicate its speakers. These voices thus only really become apparent in oral performance, where the reader must decide on her cast of characters, and give each one a recognizable personality. Since every reading of the poem is thus an interpretation of some of its most fundamental questions, it would be a very bad thing indeed to have only one version. Having six—and being able to switch so easily between them—is pretty wonderful. It encourages you compare the readers’ interpretations—to listen to how Viggo handles the Cockney voice in the bar scene versus how Eliot handles it; to ask why Alec Guinness does “Marie” with a calm German accent while Fiona Shaw does her in histrionic English. This in turn encourages you do think of how you would do it yourself, to decide where you would switch voices, what accents your characters would have, what their histories would be, and so on. It is a feature worth a million footnotes. It “explains” the poem not by telling you what it means, but by asking you what it means, and providing a rubric for answering that question.

While the app is, in my opinion, overwhelmingly great, it does have some drawbacks. For one thing—and here we see one of the advantages of print!—you can’t mark it up. With poetry, you want to underline, to note rhyme schemes, to speculate about images, to note where voices come in and out, and the app provides no facility for that. Thankfully we have printers, and the free edition available on Project Gutenberg [LINK], to get around that particular dilemma. For another—and here is the pleased but spoiled child demanding more delicious food—I would like a few more voices. I would particularly like some less “arty” voices; hearing Sarah Silverman or Tracy Morgan read The Waste Land would truly complete the experience.

Somewhat more seriously, all this technological richness does move the poem out of its own native context to some extent, and thus alters some of its meanings and effects. If the app promises to reverse the “Death of Poetry” in a small way, it does not change the fact that the poem was written at a moment when poetry was dying, or mask how this death was written into the poem itself. For example, the ironic juxtaposition of “The nymphs are departed / Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song” just doesn’t come across in an oral performance, where we do actually hear the song, and where singing nymphs seem very much present. Remediation back into oral performance has a few other weird effects, also. These are especially evident in the poem’s conspicuous use of onomatopoeia, conventionalized graphical representations of sounds. One place where Viggo Mortensen’s reading truly does merit laughter is his reading of the bird calls “Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug.” It’s a bit like using Babelfish to translate a phrase into a language you don’t speak, and then translate it back again: the humour comes from the confused translation path—from sound to speech and back again, with numerous artifacts preserved.

Even the awkwardnesses, alas, can be read as further strengths, for they alert us once again to the way that meaning in poetry is medium-dependent, and thus remind us of the real triumph of The Waste Land app: taking a poem out of a print medium that wasn’t particularly working for it, and presenting it in a much more congenial form. Let us cheer the advent of The Waste Land in something approaching its ideal form, then. Eliot’s poem, which has remained avant-garde for almost a century, is now closer than ever to our grasp. This generation stands a better chance than any before of making Eliot its contemporary.

1The exciting footnotes of Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, and Mordecai Richler are respectfully excepted from the above blanket statement. —AH [This footnote is excepted also. —Ed.]

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