"Certainly the most overrated poem in the Anglo-American canon."


That's Christopher Hitchens in a review of The Annotated Waste Land. I haven't kept up on the critical debates for many years, so I don't know how many of Hitchens' arguments count as contrarian at this point, but there are some really good ones: Ezra Pound's legendary editing job actually ruined the poem; April is obviously not the cruelest month; the ending of The Waste Land is more an incoherent hash than a multilingual journey into symbolist mystery. And one observation that I suspect will go down as the final word on Eliot (mostly because I've always thought it myself): His defining characteristic, and probably the most interesting thing about him, is how clumsy and affected his posture as a "British poet" really was:

Several of Eliot's English friends caught him overdoing things: wearing a bowler hat at odd moments, and saluting uniformed guardsmen in the street—trying too hard, in other words. (Auden did a much better job of becoming an American, or at least a New Yorker, than Tom from St. Louis did of becoming a stage Englishman.)

Now a D.C.-based Brit who is currently hawking a glowing biography of Thomas Jefferson has no business throwing stones at self-parodying expats. And the comparison with Auden is not fair: Homosexuality is the most international of passports, while Eliot's evident horror of the sex act is a guarantee of friendlessness in any country. But as luck would have it, just last week I was at a party where some gin-swilling former Fleet Street sleaze tried to tell me that Eliot understood the "sound of English English" better than any other writer of the twentieth century, or some nonsense like that. So I'm especially primed for this vision of Eliot the faux anglais. The Waste Land works best when read aloud in a pokey Missouri drawl.

But Hitch misses the most obvious evidence that Eliot was a bumpkin out of his depth—that when he converted, it was to the Anglican church rather than the RCC. In the middle of the twentieth century, when the overriding story of English letters was the Catholic reconquest of Old Blighty, who else but an American hick trying to pass would have failed to recognize the Church of England as a pointless relic, the junior varsity of Catholicism? It was the ultimate Prufrock move—Eliot managed one big spiritual awakening in his life, and even that he turned into a half-assed gesture.

Still, unfortunately for Hitch and me, the absurdity of a writer is no argument against the writing, and The Waste Land (which Hitch does credit with catching "something of the zeitgeist" and enthralling "those who needed borrowed words and concepts to capture or re-express the desolation of Europe after 1918") remains stubbornly with us. Just about everybody likes The Waste Land; the only objection to The Waste Land I know of comes from the fake-egalitarian snob John Carey, who complains that it can't be paraphrased (unlike classic poems like "Let's Fuck" and "Which Way Do I Go?"). Even I like The Waste Land, and I loathe Eliot. By almost every measure (starting with his home state) William Carlos Williams was a more interesting and admirable figure than Eliot, and I'd love to claim Paterson as the masterpiece everybody says The Waste Land is, but it just ain't so.

As I prefer my high-modernist cinderblocks without sanding and polishing, I won't bother defending it here, but The Waste Land is just jake, and its reputation is more about honest-to-God popularity than overrating. You give The Waste Land to anybody, and they'll find something to grok in it. And I don't just mean Martin Rowson's detective-thriller comic book version, although that's pretty good too.