“I did it again,” confesses Megan Quigley at the beginning of her introduction to “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo generation.” Teaching is, of course, an art of doing things again: we repeat assignments, advice, corrections; we repeat our own mistakes and the prejudices we’ve absorbed from our education; we reflect, revise, and begin again.
In the fall of 2019, I taught an advanced undergraduate course I had not offered for three years: “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Even in previous versions called “Modern Poetry,” my agenda was to decenter the version of modernism handed down to me; in this project I felt fellowship with feminist scholars I read as a graduate student in the early nineties. Decentering involved, at the time, remixing white female experimental poets into the company of male modernist giants.
How did people learn to be queer in an era before stable identities, lifestyles, or representations of sexual outsiders were readily available or, for that matter, before they even existed?
In my first stab at drafting an inaugural post as the new editor of this forum, I went the Raymond Carver route, writing “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Discipline” across the top of a blank page. When that imagined dialogue hung fire for several weeks, I ventured greater specificity, replacing “We” with “I.” Pronouncements still unforthcoming, I searched my hard drive for toeholds. What have I talked about when I’ve talked about the discipline? My Documents folders returned zero hits for the phrase “the discipline.” I tried again, deleting “the” from the search, which revealed that I have only ever used the word “discipline” as a verb or an adjective—most often to describe the reading and writing habits and practices of the subjects of my first book (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Henry James, and Nella Larsen). This lacuna was perhaps predictable: in my early career as a graduate student and then an untenured assistant professor, I was more concerned (and more comfortable) with proffering granular descriptions of literary activity in my field than with scaling up grand claims about the literary institution my studies were constituting
Austral summer on the Antarctic Peninsula. Eight of us climb out of our zodiac onto the shore of Petermann Island. This place dazzles and overwhelms the senses. The luminous blue icebergs, granite streaked pink with penguin guano, the weakly green cryoplankton spread across the snow. Antarctica is not the white continent of popular imagination. And it isn’t quiet either. The plangent groans of glaciers crawl across the landscape, reverberating through our bodies. Gentoo penguins squawk atop their stone nests, staring helplessly skyward at the skuas eying their young. We are unwelcome, unneeded guests.
In this conversation about Process, Jacquelyn Ardam and her undergraduate advisee, Cole Walsh, demystify the senior thesis. Cole’s thesis, “Mak[ing] Bright the Arrows: Recovering the Political Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” examines the poetry of the underserved Millay, whose work with the sonnet, Cole argues, deploys its “memorable speech” to intervene within the isolationist politics of the United States.
Please humor me with a thought experiment. Imagine introducing T. S. Eliot and “The Waste Land” (1922) to your class with some of the bare biographical details: T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis but, like other modernist poets, made a career abroad. Ezra Pound, whom Eliot met in London in 1914, helped get “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” published in Poetry magazine and edited the first drafts of “The Waste Land.” Perhaps you had already introduced Pound’s editorial relationships with and advocacy for other young poets by telling the story of how Pound launched H. D.’s career by editing early poems, scrawling “H.D. Imagiste” at the bottom, and sending them to Harriet Monroe for Poetry. Your students might assume that, regardless of T. S. Eliot’s sex at birth, the initials T. S. were intended to be as gender-neutral as H. D. Many of your students grew up reading J. K. Rowling, who was convinced by a publisher that Harry Potter would sell better without the feminine name of Joanna (no middle name) Rowling. T. S. Eliot as a gender-neutral name undoubtedly sounds a bit ludicrous to modernists who cut their teeth and their teaching on Eliot’s famous and infamously difficult long poem. It is far more plausible to our students, many of whom are engaged in an evolving terrain of categories and possibilities related to gender and sexuality. Making space for a gender-neutral approach to Eliot and “The Waste Land,” while acknowledging that such an approach was not accurate to Eliot’s historical moment, has given some of my students a purchase on the poem. These students have taught me about new conceptions of gender and their relevance to readings of “The Waste Land.”
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. 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.
The keyword I have chosen is Boundaries. I am interested in boundaries as they relate in particular to the middle portion of “A Game of Chess,” which begins “My nerves are bad tonight.” This section not only features annotations by Ezra Pound, but also it bears the mark of Eliot’s first wife, Vivien. It demonstrates one of the most important and most difficult elements of #MeToo: the messiness of boundaries emotional, intellectual, physical, and, in this case, textual.
Some stories are told and retold: they seem to strike a profound chord and to resonate in new ways. The story of Philomela, for example, reappears in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline when Imogen has fallen asleep while reading Ovid’s tale. Imogen’s bedroom is described—by a creepy Iachimo as he watches her—with details similar to those in “A Game of Chess.” Lavinia, in Titus Andronicus, is also raped and her tongue cut out. Titus compares her to Philomela, but the assault is even worse: her hands are cut off so that, unlike Philomela, she can not even weave a tapestry of her story. Today the story reappears in commentary and art: The Colby College website account claims it “provides a powerful warning to those who would silence their victims” because, as it does in Ovid, “the truth will out!” Paisley Rekdal retells it to expose the demand for a story. In the Margate exhibition recalling Eliot’s recuperation there, it appears as a graphic image of sorrow. For the #MeToo generation, the story of Philomela, a recurrent allusion in “The Waste Land,” provides an intense articulation of our own experiences.