The Poetry of
Jack Scott


Dec 14

Re: Note or Notes on the Wasteland, an Annotation

I have some preferences here and some prejudices. I very much enjoy T.S. Eliot’S, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock for instance. It’s one of my favorite of his works. I have read The Wasteland many times and I don’t like it at all. (I don’t like Alfred Hitchcock’s movies either.) Despite its exorbitant critical acclaim and occasional eye stopping phrase I can’t find much in it to like. I don’t like poetry that shackles one to a dictionary or other reference material, in this case to the the whole damned library. I don’t think a doctorate in the classics adds any grace to the enjoyment of poetry. I can’t abide pretentiousness at all. My credentials: I’m a reader and a poet. I’m afraid I find the Wasteland to be a wasteland. But you didn’t have to read it, you might say. I did have to read it because I said I would.

Back in the early 60’s I lived in an old farmhouse on three acres near the city with my wife and two sons. I was writing poetry and some prose back then, and beginning to learn that I might have some talent as a sculptor. It seemed that I could make things in three dimensions that I couldn’t draw, let alone roughly sketch. I had no talent whatever in two dimensions.

My youngest sister at the time was a fashion major at the Maryland College Institute of Art. She was going with a guy, also a M.I.C.A student, who was having a problem with an English assignment. They asked me if I would write “book report” for him- on The Wasteland. He was really stuck, mired in. I had read it in college, but was rusty so I reread it, and reread it. No, this was not what I would call a piece of cake. To prepare a critical analysis, for which I was unqualified, (thank God) I would have to do a lot of research. More than any poem should warrant, I felt.

They were broke so they couldn’t even offer to pay me. What could they barter? Paul was a graphic artist, a painter, so he could draw. I didn’t think to ask for a mural and, besides the house wasn’t far enough along in its rehab for that. I didn’t much care for his paintings so that was (tactfully) declined. It turns out that I had put in a 4” x 4” at the bottom of our driveway at the road, with a large brand new galvanized steel mail box on top. I told him that if he would paint a realistic vine with flowers and berries twining up the post and covering the mailbox I would write his paper for him. Agreed.

My regrets began as soon as I undertook the job. My OCD perfectionism kicked in immediately and I kept rereading the original poem. I neither read nor wanted to read its annotations or critical commentary. I wasn’t out to reinvent what I considered to be a square wheel. There were some good lines in it and parts seemed almost to have an anal retentive ease about them, but my basic feeling- feeling I said- was that it was just a long Declaration of Constipation. I started out with a linear approach, you know, each sentence following the one before in some kind of order, with some kind of sense.

I made a lot of false starts getting nowhere. I couldn’t just review the thing as if it were a movie; it was totally non-linear and only sporadically narrative. I refused to resort to a Cliff’s Notes sort of cribbing. If a poem needs a minor library of explanation how can it be simply enjoyed. It keeps tripping over its own feet. I grew to feel at war with this; it made me angry. Sometime people do things just to prove that it can be done and that they can do it, regardless of what it actually turns out to be. The Emperor’s New Clothes was such a case. I think the English teachers were just too afraid to speak their minds. The Wasteland is pompous self indulgence.

I spent a lot of time doing this wrong, with no success whatever. So I decided to just go with the flow, as that generation was saying, and wing it as a parody using free association. Nobody would be sure what it was, a parody or a seriously serious piece of interpretive work. By the time I finished it even I didn’t know. When I showed it to my patrons, they loved it and couldn’t wait to turn it in just under the deadline.

There then came a hitch. My sister called the next day. Paul couldn’t sleep all night and awoke to the cold sweated certainty that he could not possibly turn this in as his –a freshman’s- own work. He’d get kicked out of school.

I never got my painted vine.


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