THE WASTE LAND APP: Lyrical cruelty

By Pablo Medel. April 11, 2012


April is still the cruellest month. The famous starting line of The Waste Land is back in vogue. It’s the 1920s. Joyce has just published his unclassifiable Ulysses. T. S. Eliot, with his recently taken British citizenship, does the same with poetry. His famous 434 lines uncover his brutal, kaleidoscopic and multicultural vision of that post-war decadent society. With the impulse and advice of Ezra Pound, the greatest poem of English Modernism is printed and the publishing world applauds the deserved philosophical slap in the face. Europe is falling apart and it needs a decorous way out. Eliot does not have answers, but he does have a spiral of questions. Now, and after the good decision made by the English publishing houses Touch Press and Faber, the United Kingdom is celebrating the digital version of that poem –which has become a success since its launch– now that its reading is more appropriate than ever.

What is clear is that poetry has found its niche in tablets. The Waste Land App includes, not only the poem –with its manuscript draft– or the famous notes of the British-American poet, but also an extraordinary video-performance by the amazing Irish actress Fiona Shaw. With a slight tilt of the screen, the poem verses light up (as if it were a karaoke, though), while Fiona recites with an exquisite precision all five sections of the fragmented poem. But she is not the only one. The app includes five more voices. (To be able to tap a line and to hear the voice that recites is brilliant.) We can find two versions by Eliot himself (with a ten-year-gap between them), the booming voice of Sir Alec Guinness, the performance of the great Ted Hughes and, maybe for commercial reasons, a recent reading by Viggo Mortensen.

Still, the app’s added value is certainly in the tab Perspectives. Seamus Heany offers his approach, discovery and analysis of Eliot’s cosmogonist poem. (For the curious, in his reading of the section Death by Water, the Irish poet looks in the camera and changes, unintentionally, the adjective in the last line.) Paul Keegan, Faber’s editor, talks about Ezra Pound’s editorial work (since he structured the poem) and of the importance it had on the original’s edition by Vivien Haigh-Wood, Eliot’s first wife. The critic Jim McCue shows the first editions and, among other things, the mistake that Virginia Woolf didn’t notice in the British version. (Oh dear, prepositions.) The poet Craig Raine focuses on Eliot’s voice, the use of the figures of speech (the anadiplosis in the last section, What the Thunder Said, are incredible) or why the original title (He do the police in different voices), which Eliot took from one of Dickens stories, was discarded. The English songwriter Fran Turner, who doesn’t seem to fit (it is never easy to recite the author of Prufrock and Other Observations, and his intervention can be summarised in him showing a verse tattooed on his wrist), focuses on how Eliot influenced Dylan; there goes his Desolation Row. And last, the new reading made by the postmodern novelist Jeanette Winterson: the multiplicity of voices, the chaotic city of London bathed by a dirty Thames or Eliot’s dystopian prophecy are not only a warning of what is happening right now but a metaphor necessary for this (our) digital world.

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