Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, July 7, 2016

John Beer, _The Waste Land and Other Poems_

HARD TO BEAT the book's title for sheer chutzpah--the cover is even a facsimile of the back cover of the 1923 Hogarth Press edition of Eliot's poem.

Smart-assery (to give chutzpah another name) is discernible in Beer's re-make of Eliot's most famous poem, but the smart-assery is, one has to admit, smart--Eliot's dedication to Pound, "il miglior fabbro" ("the better craftsman"), becomes a dedication to Jack Spicer, "the fabber craftsman"--and Beer knows his source poem deeply enough that his "Waste Land" seems less parody than what the 18th century called an "imitation," a re-imagining of the poem into new circumstances, as Pope did with Horace and Johnson with Juvenal. Some of it is easy pickings--"hurry up please it's time" becomes "Borders will be closing in fifteen minutes"--but Beer is more alert than most commentaries to the ways that Eliot's poem is self-deflating, a joke at its own expense (for instance, Beer opens with a take on the "Water-dripping song" that Eliot later said was the best part of the poem).

Other poems in the book seem to be looking sidewise at Four Quartets ("The Perfumed Crypt") or at Marx ("Theses on Failure") or Rilke ("Sonnets to Morpheus"), but I wonder whether these overtly acknowledged precursors are not the crucial ones. The poet who most haunts the volume, to my ear, is Ashbery:

What was I trying to get at? Once posed in that condition,
the question seemed slightly insane, a septet of cardinals
lunching at the Rainforest Café. The old skin issues
kept reasserting themselves, a wayward boomerang
lurching hither and yon, over hills and dales and hibernating
     ("Bob Hope Is Not a Plan")

Similarly, "Sonnets to Morpheus" actually seems to owe less to Rilke than to the shaggy-dog narrative poems of Paul Muldoon in his earlier days--"The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants," for instance. The book's deftness in Advanced-Class Leg-Pulling, all by itself, could be seen as following the example of Muldoon (cf. Madoc) or Ashbery (cf. everything he ever published).

Beer has a touch all his own, though, elusive of definition but discernible enough to leave me wanting to read the next one.

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