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During conversations about #MeToo, I find myself thinking often about time, perhaps most directly because the call of #MeToo was answered in 2018 by #TimesUp. This subsequent movement had its own share of problems, from questions about individual actors to pertinent criticism of Hollywood’s celebrity machine.[1] But from where I stand at the very fringes of pop culture, it’s heartening to watch the cyclical, “That’s just how power works” morph into a full stop: “No more.” Not all the evidence offered up to public scrutiny has received full credence, unfortunately; but every conversation about power dynamics and gender violence shows that we are at a rare moment when discussions about how rhetoric constitutes truth-as-bias have spilled over from their usually restricted purview in humanities classrooms. Suddenly, newspaper Op-Eds are debating philosophical abstractions about the malleability of reality—believing her and believing him as if we’re all within a literary house of mirrors.

Once begun, it is difficult to stop thinking about “The Waste Land” as a suitable text through which to broach conversations about gender violence. The word “carbuncular,” always ugly, has expanded in my inner ear to encompass the full range of survivor responses, from the typist’s crushed indifference, the poetic sense of “assault,” and my own readerly fear and disgust that has been recently resensitized by national political events. This forum is, in a sense, an invitation to dwell on the possibilities of such acts of rethinking that are, to be precise, acts of re­hearing.[2] Why do we hear masculine voices when nothing is specified? Janine Utell sets a challenge to which I respond with a thrill: “The Waste Land” invites contrarian readings and, as Erin Templeton also reminds us, its masculinist compositional pose is something of a myth that we have learned, and now must unlearn, and teach. As with #MeToo conversations (even the terrible ones), the new Eliot studies, armed with newly accessible resources, offers the opportunity to listen afresh to Anglophone poetic texts alongside our students, majors and non-majors alike.[3]

Reading through Empathy towards Subversion

My community college students refuse to let me parrot my own long-held certainties. “The Waste Land” screams of disconnection: from other people, nature, love, causality, meaning. The lines, “so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” emblematize modernist fragmentation and ennui, the initial lure of modernism itself for me.[4] But my students bring a level of empathy to the text that was foreign to me as an undergraduate. A young man notes that in getting to 8 a.m. classes through last year’s unending winter, we were akin to those crowds, sighing at dawn, eyes fixed to our feet. Well, we aren’t shell-shocked survivors of war, I pedantically respond. But my students know that normal life can grind down one’s spirit in ostensible peacetime, too. They are mostly young public school graduates of color, the first in their families to attend a US college. Some of them moved to New York as excellent students schooled in other languages, but before they could adjust to the educational vocabulary of secondary schools, they were held back a year or rerouted into special education classes. “Examine your discomfort,” I tell them, as I myself was told. But the poem’s hodge-podge of languages recalls some of those earliest academic nightmares, to which my students respond with a combination of dismay (“not this again”) and stubborn determination. They pull out their phones in class—before I object, they show me the OED dictionary app they have open. They have overcome far more than I can imagine to get to this classroom, and they are capable of further immensities.

“London Bridge, London,” photogravure by Donald Macleish from Wonderful London by St John Adcock, 1927. Image courtesy Flickr.
Fig. 1. “London Bridge, London,” photogravure by Donald Macleish from Wonderful London by St John Adcock, 1927. Image courtesy Flickr.

“The Waste Land” brought me relief and pleasure as an undergraduate, that feeling of resonating with something outside myself. If it does so for my students, their comfort derives from different elements of the poem. Even the quietest of them is a social justice warrior, not because she feels impelled towards politics—in fact, the student I have in mind resolutely does not want to engage with public debates—but because her actions spring from a bedrock of belief in education and positive change. She knows people who, like the poetic narrator, hang out of their windows and watch others, thinking it all a waste. And, like Eliot himself, who found his Lloyds Bank work surprisingly bracing, she thrives on interpersonal connectivity. As we work through the stanza, her empathetic recognition brings the crowd closer than ever, moving around the poetic “I” on whom I had fixated. The Cumaean Sibyl becomes the class icon: a woman who suffers for defying a powerful god, whose quickness of mind can’t save her from the brutish hammer of absolute authority. But instead of contemplating the exhausting sadness of a world gone awry, as I spend (or, misspend) much of my own time doing, my proto-feminist rehears the poem as an injury that demands a corrective. The Sibyl’s story isn’t the slow fizzle of an ending, but to my student, a call to arms.

Time, reality, truth—these constructions are open to subversion and reconstruction by human agents. This principle of renewal is as integral to revolutionary politics as to Eliotic poetics. Almost a century ago, Eliot delivered a lecture on trends in modern poetry in which, strange for a speech intended to explain modern poetry to a lay audience, he began by claiming that “the ‘tendency of poetry’ depends on the audience as well. . . . if you wish to ask what we are likely to get . . . I must ask what you will do with it when you get it.”[5] Poetry, once written, passes to the reader; over time, interpretive communities make and remake the text. This is not simply a readerly move, but a revisionist, feminist one.

Poetry, Pedagogy, and Social Justice

In the spirit of hopefulness, then, I offer a final anecdote from my classroom. I’d always disliked the story of Lil told at the pub, primarily because of its matter-of-fact depiction of the toll that marriage and motherhood takes on women’s bodies. Before my first modernism survey course, I had not known that malnourished mothers lose their teeth (thanks, Joyce), and no one explained exactly what those pills did to women—a point of continuing critical elision, as Megan Quigley notes. Eliot shows couples engaged in elaborate, deadly games of relationship-chess, and in this context, I heard the all-capitals of “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” as a tiny man with a little power obnoxiously yelling at everyone (line 141). “But haven’t things changed?” one young man looks up to ask. Yes, things are not exactly as they used to be even if they are not yet perfect. Gendered stereotypes, including representations of motherhood and mothering, are questioned by mainstream TV shows, and although there is a lot left to do, we have not been at a standstill. My assignments and response prompts have changed to reflect this: instead of asking students to talk back to masculinist depictions of women, I find myself asking more “how” questions. How do we now hear the block capitals in “The Waste Land”? How does So-and-so (for instance, Rupi Kaur, in 2018) bring contemporary women’s issues into everyday screen-based conversations? My students have already left me far behind in their comfort with gender neutrality. They discuss coursework at home, and if anyone says, “This stuff is turning you into a feminist,” they are pleased. They meditate, and talk unselfconsciously about the benefits of self-reflection in learning practices.

A recent reappraisal of Eliot’s lecturing for extension school courses from 1916–1919 argues that his teaching influenced the critical writing from the same years.[6] The annotations in the new Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, Volume 2 reinforce this connection, tracing many of the esoteric literary references in his essays to course materials he first assigned to the non-traditional and working adult students attending his lectures. Eliot sounds very much like contemporary English faculty when he claims to have found “only two ways” to teach well—give students factual contextual information before opening a free-for-all discussion, or else to “spring the work on them in such a way that they were not prepared to be prejudiced against it.”[7] The then-radical rules governing extension course lecturing have become pedagogic commonplaces in the century since Eliot acquiesced to them. Rachel Buurma and Laura Heffernan note that other established practices of extension teaching included building course schedules collaboratively between instructor and student; avoiding sage-on-stage-style lectures; and introducing non-specialists to disciplinary research in the earliest stages of study. It is both a neat coincidence and a sign of change that Eliot’s pedagogic experience, sustained by its social justice mission, happens also to be mine.



[1] In an informal real-time survey of #TimesUp news, it was interesting to see a variety of responses to Asia Argento, both accuser and accusee of sexual harassment. She was quickly replaced as a visible face of the movement in favor of the more-irreproachable Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Chastain, among others. While speculations and op-eds on this topic abound, I am most taken by Rinku Sen’s defense of #TimesUp in the Nation.

[2] See Janine Utell’s article in this cluster for one instance of affectively rereading and -hearing the “hyacinth girl” passage in “The Waste Land”; similarly, Nancy Gish’s method of tracing the original references embedded in the poem adds to this already polyvocal text.

[3] I don’t want to cite articles or name any Men’s Rights activists; instead, here is David Roberts from Vox in an article that replies to the kinds of terrible conversations that I have in mind.

[4] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ed. Michael North (New York: Norton, 2000), 7, line 62–63.

[5] T. S. Eliot, “Modern Tendencies in Poetry” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Volume 2, The Perfect Critic, 1919–1926, ed. Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press), 212–25, 212.

[6] See Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, “The Classroom in the Canon: T. S. Eliot’s Modern English Literature Extension Course for Working People and The Sacred Wood,” PMLA 133, no. 2, (2018): 264–281.

[7] T. S. Eliot, “The Function of Criticism” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Volume 2, 458–68, 465.