Epic Poem Post

by Jonathan Hayes


When I was in medical school in London, I traveled a lot. I’d decided that while I was young, I had no money, but I had time, and that once my career kicked into gear, my opportunity to rattle around the world would be lost. Whenever possible, I took electives in foreign countries, and every school vacation, I tried to get away somewhere interesting.

So it was that I ended up in Cairo, in a squalid little concrete block hotel not far from the endless deafening, traffic jam that is Tahrir Square (next to which, by the way, is the Egyptian Museum; I don’t know if they’ve renovated it since my last visit, but it was astonishing in a Raiders of the Lost Ark kind of way, a handsome old building with sandstone walls and marble floors, stuffed with huge, ancient statues and sarcophagi and dusty wood and glass display cases holding 5,000 year old cat statuettes and canopic jars and whatnot. I recognized many pieces from the archeology books in my father’s study; around each corner was an exhibit even more amazing than the last.)

It was a memorable stay. I was paranoid about theft, so one of my Third World hotel protocols was to hide my passport on top of the largest piece of furniture. When I reached up onto the armoire, I felt something smooth under my fingers; I took down the filthiest pornographic magazine I’d ever seen, a glossy German language celebration of a very pale, blonde dwarf and her obsession with huge, impressively-endowed black men. The porn mag was an exhilarating find – a number of the activities contained within were outside the realm of what I’d previously thought of as “sex”.

In the hotel’s lounge, I met a young Japanese guy – I’d been studying Japanese at night school, and, since he didn’t speak English, I banged out a few of my best verbs and nouns, and found to my amazement that we were actually able to communicate. He was one of the most unusual people I’ve met while traveling. No, he hadn’t visited the Egyptian Museum. No, he hadn’t seen the pyramids. How long have you been here? Five weeks, he said. He had no interest in Cairo as a place; he just wanted to be there. Why?, I asked. 

He explained that he was following the footsteps of his hero, the French Decadent poet Arthur Rimbaud, who had apparently spent seven weeks convalescing in Cairo in the 1880’s. In another two weeks, my new friend hoped to go on to Ethiopia by land, although he was having some difficulties because of unrest at the border. When he got to Harar, where Rimbaud had lived, he intended to spend a month there. Again, he’d stay in a hotel, lying on his bed and smoking Marlboro Red Label 100’s, concentrating on being in the place his hero had once inhabited.

Rimbaud was a fascinating man. One of France’s greatest poets, he stopped writing before he was 21, and got a real job. He scandalized literary Paris by his affair with Paul Verlaine, who ended up shooting him. Rimbaud turned out to be not really the job-having type; he spent much of his time walking around Europe, then took work that would get him abroad. In Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), he worked as a gun-runner; claims that he was also a slaver have been rejected in recent years, but were still part of the man’s mystique at the time I met his Cairo Superfan.

At the end of the week, when I left for Luxor, the Japanese guy was still lying on his bed, his door cracked half-way open to the hall. I stuck my head into his room, stifling in the heat and cigarette smoke, to say goodbye; he was hopeful that his visa for Ethiopia would come through at the end of the week.

Over the years, I’ve thought about him often. There was something both pure and absurd about the conceptual plane on which he’d chosen to exist. To travel 6,000 miles and skip the Great Pyramid of Giza (the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing, fer chrissakes!) seemed a little nuts, but I liked his dogmatic insistence on using his travel time for what he wanted it to be, not for what he was expected to do.

The next trip I made – a week in Paris – was largely influenced by his example. Indeed, my travel patterns since probably owe him a debt, as I have evolved into primarily a sensual traveler. I don’t feel a pressing need to see or do anything in particular when I’m at a destination. I’m there for the physical experience of the place, not the tourist highlights – I don’t get up at the crack of dawn so that I can fit in the Baths of Caracalla before I hit the Coliseum. I’m much happier sitting on a bench in a park, watching the people go by, or, better yet, enjoying a three hour lunch at a café, chatting with the waiter, reading a book, enjoying being not where I normally am.

Anyway, my post-Cairo Rimbaud fanatic trip to Paris: I decided to devote my week there to the study of early Modernism. I’d stay in my hotel and listen to and read about Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, and read and read about T.S. Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land. I’m not sure why I chose the Wagner – probably because Eliot had quoted from it in The Waste Land, and because Wagner had a reputation as being difficult (I was a cultural snob back then, predisposed to like something if it was challenging).

I took the train to Paris, and checked into the frumpiest of single-starred hotels by that glum industrial estuary of railroad tracks that fan out behind Gare du Nord. I unpacked my suitcase, arranged my books carefully on the battered desk and setting out my Sony Discman, a stack of batteries, and the 1981 Leonard Bernstein recording of Tristan, with Peter Hoffman singing Tristan and Hildegard Behrens singing Isolde. I had a shower, went down to the street and bought a croquet monsieur and a bottle of Orangina, ate my dinner, and then began.

I don’t have that much to say about the Wagner – it’s an astonishing piece of music, almost four hours of flowing and ebbing music centered around a theme of love, ecstasy and death, culminating in the infamous “liebestod, where the protagonists die while in a transcendent state of love, a recurrent theme in classical literature. Tristan is a tragedy in the grand tradition, with a mass die-off at the end, tonally somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and Reservoir Dogs. The opera is still important to me – indeed, my next tattoo will be a quote from it.

Here’s Jessye Norman singing the final aria as the dying Isolde, consumed by love for her dead Tristan:

Mostly, though, the week was dedicted to The Waste Land, the 434-line poem written by the American/English poet Thomas Stearns Eliot, first published in 1922. The first time I had encountered it (at a poetry reading competition when I was about 15), it had blown me away. I thought it was one of the most astonishingly beautiful things I’d ever heard – and I had no idea what it was about.

A sidenote: In England, you decide what you want to do with your life when you’re about 13, and then tailor your classes appropriately. Since I was going into medicine, I’d abandoned my favourite subjects (English, French, Latin) to concentrate on Chemistry, Physics and Biology. I felt cruelly deprived of an arts education; it didn’t seem fair to me that other students got to sit in class and learn about stuff like The Waste Land, while I had to study frog reproductive systems and the structure of benzene. So I tracked down a copy of the poem, and read it earnestly.

Now The Waste Land is an almost postmodern tapestry of quotes and allusions, with every quote and allusion tacking the interpretation to fairly specific meanings. There are quotes from Dante, Wagner, Rimbaud-shooter Verlaine, from Hindu, Christian and Buddhist religious texts, and references to anthropologic works on ancient fertility myths. In short, I was way out of my depth. But the language was magnificent, lyrical and lapidary. And much of the poem is uttered in snippets of dialogue or monologue, the words so precise that the characters, undescribed and unsignalled in the text, spring vibrantly to life.

Here. From the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead”:


Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee


With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,


And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.


Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.


And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,


My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,


And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.


In the mountains, there you feel free.


I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.



Beyond any deeper meaning, the language is vital and immediate, completely enchanting. I read it over and over, accepting that I didn’t understand it, accepting that Eliot’s abundant annotations were also beyond my scope, just thrilling to the words, to the sounds, to the imagery.

By the time I got to Paris, I was older, and maybe a bit more world-weary; after all, by that point, I had delivered babies, and watched men die. In my hotel room, I read about The Waste Land late into the night, going beyond the text to develop a deeper understanding of the origins of the work in the years following the maelstrom of death and ruin that was the First World War, a recent event at the time Eliot was writing. And I read about the fertility rituals that inform the poem and its sources, about the wounded Fisher King. I understood Eliot to be presenting European civilization as almost zombie-like, decayed but refusing to die, endlessly revived to stagger on without beliefs, without the succor of religion or myth. I was able to synthesize the poem better, to recognize its referents and their meanings.

But along the way, the poem seemed to dull for me. It might have been recognizing the anguish it contained, or becoming too conscious of its complex infrastructure of invoked works, but the poem lost a little of its life, a little of its ecstatic beauty. I returned to London, set it aside, and went on with my life. I liked recognizing the poem when it was cited in song lyrics and magazine articles and book titles (Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward, and many others), but for a long while, I rarely looked at the work itself.

Luckily, over time I’ve forgotten much of what I’d learned about the poem. The Waste Land gradually resumed its potency (a phenomenon which is the reverse of the poem’s main theme), and I treasure it again. I read it once every six months or so – fairly often for a poem from which I could probably recite long passages from memory.

Recently, Faber has released a fantastic iPad app, The Waste Land. It’s a labour of love, and it’s really wonderful. It includes the entire poem, and is beautifully designed so that you can effortlessly appreciate the text in a number of different ways. By sliding your fingers across the screen, the published poem is replaced with a scan of the original manuscript, heavily marked up by Eliot, the poet Ezra Pound (to whom Eliot gave a huge amount of credit for his work on the poem) and Vivien Eliot (who recent scholarship suggests had a much larger part in its creation than has previously been supposed).

But that’s not all! When you tap on a particular line of text, generous annotations appear in a side panel; the annotations are much more accessible than Eliot’s original notes. And there are a series of video interviews with prominent literary or cultural figures discussing different aspects of the poem.

But wait – there’s more! Tired of reading? Just let any one of five (5) famous people read the poem to you! The words scroll slowly by as you enjoy listening to recordings of Eliot himself (two different), Ted Hughes, Alec Guinness and… Viggo Mortensen as they bring this magnificent work to life!

There actually is still more: the prominent Irish actress Fiona Shaw (Marnie on the current season of True Blood) does a filmed dramatic reading of the piece in a battered but very lovely house. All of the readings have their different strengths; Eliot’s own recordings have never made the poem sound as good as I hear it in my head. (Or out loud – somewhat embarrassingly, I’ve read this poem. To chicks. In bed.) Hughes’s reading is reverent and workmanlike, but poor Guinness is hard for me to listen to – I keep waiting for him to say something about Mos Eisley Spaceport, or using the Force. Viggo’s reading is surprisingly good – again, reverent, but modest and earnest. He’s not as strong at the monologue/dialogue parts as is Fiona Shaw, but she’s a stage actor. And also, she overdoes the bits with the – what, omniscient narrator? – who hovers in the background as the poem’s spine.

Anyway, I highly recommend the app; it’s the perfect introduction to one of the most important pieces of literature of the 20th Century — and one of my fondest artistic epiphanies. I can’t help but think that it would’ve really enriched my cloistered week in Paris. Then again, I suppose that finding unfamiliar pornography on the armoire might also have done the trick; an epiphany of an altogether different sort.

So, what about you? Have you had any (preferrably youthful and embarrassing) artistic epiphanies? Has a book or play or piece of music given you sudden insight into a universe you’d barely understood before?






22 thoughts on “Epic Poem Post

  1. Louise Ure

    Hi Jonathan. I can understand your Japanese friend's obsession with Rimbaud. And yours with The Waste Land. (And "lapidary" is such a wonderful word to describe it.)

    Mine was with Colette, the 19th French writer of L'Herbe en Blé. She lusted. She was vulnerable. And she let it be known.

    This Waste Land app is too cool. I'm downloading now.

  2. Thomas Pluck

    I read The Waste Land in college and dived deep into it. A compression of the canon and history into 434 lines. Now I want this app so I can return to it…
    I don't know about April, but this is the cruelest post.

  3. Sarah W

    **Tristan is a tragedy in the grand tradition, with a mass die-off at the end, tonally somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and Reservoir Dogs.**

    This is the best description of Tristan and Isolde I have ever seen. May I borrow it, please?

    I played bassoon for many years, and while epiphanies happened, the most excruciating (besides the realization that I wasn't professional musician material) that I can remember involved the orchestra pit for The Mystery of Edwin Drood and the French Horn player's sudden, devastating bout of stomach 'flu.

    Mind over matter *works* when the show has to go on. It not easy, and it doesn’t last much past the finish line, but it works.

    The only embarrassing youthful musical epiphany that I can remember (that didn't involve me playing) happened the time a friend and I went to a performance of selections from Wagner's Ring Cycle. It was glorious, we were both totally into it and discussing the quality of the music and musicians from a completely self-conscious, is-anyone-listening-to-us-we're-musicians, kind of way during the breaks . . . and then one of us (between you and I, it was her) leaned close and sang, "Kill the wabbit," sotto voice.

    For the next two hours, we almost died trying not to laugh (between you and I, she was the one snorting) and completely ruined the evening for those around us.

    I realize then, that pride goeth and when it doth, it taketh with it all dignity and all illusions that one is *not* the lowest common denominator. And also, Bugs Bunny trumps all.

  4. Judy Wirzberger

    I relate more to your absorbtion of locale.
    On a Mediterranean cruise, I politely refused to accompany my fellow travelers to a mosque and instead walked through the shopping area. I stopped at a place run by a woman from Canada married to a Greek. She told me to go into the changing stall, take of my clothes and put on a Greek creation that resembled a harem legged jumpsuit and then go for a walk. The Greeks were most appreciative (I was younger and thinner and dark of hair) so, of course, I bought the outfit.

    I stayed and chatted with her and watched as two Greek men pulled up chairs to sit and watch. A local woman went into the changing stall with a skirt, came out in the skirt and her bra to check out the mirror. The Greek men sat expressionless on their chairs and watched. She tried on many outfits. The men watched. She left without purchasing anything. The men walked away, chairs in hand.

    The shop owner asked me to stay to lunch. We ate dried fish she had transported from home in rolled newspaper and spaghetti we forked from a Tupperware container.

    In Istanbul, I again avoided the tour and ended up at the Grand Bazaar with John McDaniel, a 26-year old American who was pianist during high tea on the ship and later became John McD on Rosie O’Donnell’s show. He led me into the bowels of the Bazaar and to a Meerschaum pipe maker who pulled, from under the counter, hand carved pipes depicting lovers in various positions..

    We then went to John’s tailor. While he consulted, two Greek men carried chairs to the doorway and sat and watched.

    That and leaving Mikynos with a violent thunder storm at my back and a setting moon ahead are my favorite memories. Well, that and two Israeli custom officials and a Greek waiter searching a rose garden at two in the morning flicking their Bics for the perfect rose for me to carry home.

    Thanks for the memories! Judy (I, too, would rather spend three hours in a cafe- loving Hard Death)

  5. Rae

    Hi Jonathan,

    I travel like you do – I want to *be* in the place, not just cram my day with activities and guide books. I'm especially that way about Paris.

    Embarrassing artistic epiphany? That’s easy. First, you need to know that I grew up in a small town in a small state, with zero exposure to fine art. I began to learn a little in college, and by the time I got to the Chicago Art Institute (now my second favorite museum in the world, after the Rodin in Paris) in my early 30s, I felt OK about my art knowledge. So, we’re marching up a grand marble staircase, and there on the landing is the Seurat piece, “Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grand Jatte”. I turned to my friend and said, “Isn’t it great that they have this giant lovely copy of the painting?” My friend, quite rightly, sneered and responded “You peasant, that’s the real thing!” Which caused me to hyperventilate a bit, because we’d just been looking at all sorts of Monet and Picasso – I just hadn’t wrapped my head around the idea that you could see actual famous pieces of art outside the pages of a book. I guess I thought they were all locked up for safekeeping.

    For sudden insight, I’d go with Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger”, a lighthearted romp (not! 😉 about a writer starving to death. It taught me that books really can be that powerful.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Beautiful, beautiful post, Jonathan. I am a huge fan of The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and the poem has played a major role in my development as a writer. However, The Waste Land has always been too difficult for me, entirely due to my own reluctance to sit down and do the work, as you have done, to understand it. I'm looking forward to really digging into it – using the ap you have provided us. What an amazing treat – this is how technology should work! To teach and educate. I can't wait until I have just a little time to jump into it.
    And I love the way you travel. I do it the same. The cafe, the novel, and conversations with the waiter or bartender. That's the way to see a city.

  7. Jonathan Hayes

    Y'know, Louise, I've never read Colette, but I love her shop on the rue St. Honoré!

    I just – and to hilarious effect! – but I really should read her.

    Thomas: if you don't already have one, the Waste Land app is the perfect opportunity to get an iPad!

    Sarah: I winced a little at that sentence, not sure that it was fair, not sure that it was an appropriate way to honour something I love, but you're welcome to use it in any way you see fit. Then again, I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, "I have yet to meet the decent man who has listened to Wagner and not thought inside himself, 'Kill the wabbit…" I hope you caught the Daily Show last night, when Stewart did his imitation of an orchestra union rep cutting short a rehearsal that had run down; Stewart puts on his standard blue collar thug voice, and says, "Everybody! Put dem bassoons down right now!"

    And Judy! Great travel, PLUS a soupçon of pornography! You know how to live… And on the subject of life, I'm glad you're liking A HARD DEATH.

    Rae, I agree with you totally about Hamsun's HUNGER – what a shattering book it is.

  8. Jonathan Hayes

    Oh, "Prufrock" is a wonderful poem! He wrote it when he was 22, and it has all the elements of his fully-developed style. For its length, it's also striking that it's every bit as quotable as "The Waste Land".

  9. Reine

    Jonathan, headed for that iPad app – soon as I post this. Thanks!

    Epiphanies? I had to look up the word my first week at div school . . . along with hermeneutic and the concept of having "a theology." The only one I ever got a handle on was hermeneutic, an epiphany of its own when it came out of my mouth spontaneously during my comedy bit at the end of school theological review. I thanked a professor for her "California hermeneutic." She and everyone applauded. My epiphany was the revelation that one could not only get into theology school without knowing one goddamn thing about religion or theology, but one can write a thesis, do field work, write ones theology, and graduate with very little understanding.

  10. David Corbett

    "Herr Wagner has a some beautiful moments. And a great many tedious quarters of an hour." — Rossini

    Epiphany: Seeing TOSCA, Puccini's crime story, performed in the actual Rome locations described in the libretto. (On PBS — I couldn't, of course, see it in the actual locations — they'd have to bus us all over town between acts.)

    As for The Waste of Time Land. (You read that to chicks in bed? What, you ran out of roofies?) Somehow, I think I can resist the app. But it's cool they're doing it. When somebody does it with Yeats — "Willie and his spooks," as gentle Ezra once said — maybe I'll get on the bus.

    There's something so Werner Herzog about the Japanese tourist guy.

    And we all know the dwarf porn was yours.

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  12. Jonathan Hayes

    Ah, Reine. I always used to get "hermeneutics" and "heuristics" mixed up. As a scientist, on the subject of theology school, I have to wonder how much you can know about something that doesn't exist…

    I kid! I kid, because I love! Religion is a fascinating thing – although I've always suspected that you'll learn more about a country from its food and its pornography than from its religion.

    And Corbett! The dwarf porn wasn't mine when I entered the room, but it was when I left!

    jk/lol, and whatever other mealy-mouthed disclaimers might apply

    Ah, Giacomo Puccini! The master! The man who gave us such treasures as "Theme from the Elevator in the Italian Pavilion at Epcot", and "Background Music for Australian Beer. Commercial"!

    I jest! I am more of a Verdi fan, though – TRAVIATA over BOHEME every time. I'd like to see a performance of AIDA at the Pyramids. Apparently they go all out – cast of thousands, camels, elephants etc.

    Also: chicks dig poetry, particularly if you've got the voice for it.

  13. Mysti

    Not only was it a book, not a movie, but it was a Marx Bros movie. Oh, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that was probably more about the acid than the movie…

    What you say may be true about chicks & poetry. I definitely fell for my husband in part because of the way he read the King of France. And his Tim Curry imitation. Is it not true about dudes and poetry?

  14. Mysti

    arg. Not only was it *not* a book, it was a movie. brain is still on vacation, I see…

  15. Reine

    Ah Jonathan. Why might you think I am not a scientist? I was recruited to "minister" to medical students from one of my neuro classes at Harvard Med. I was also a div student at the time. Then a psych student. Now I am on disability leave from my administrative/counseling/advising program-developing job at the med school. I was also on the faculty of divinity as a field ed advisor.

  16. Reine

    But there you are – or I am – TLE Geschwind in living color. So like . . . um . . . oups. Sorry? Not really. I had about 7 Sz today.

  17. Jonathan Hayes

    A good Tim Curry imitation is a rarefied thing indeed!

    I wasn't being serious, Reine, just riffing on the God vs. science contront. I hope today is less stomy neurologically…

  18. Reine

    Thanks, Jonathan. I'm okay. It just wipes me out and leaves me feeling stupid. Our local pharmacies don't stock Keppra. They wait for me to request a refill. That usually works – sometimes not. It rarely works when the Rx needs to be refilled. I can't order the refill early enough to get the Keppra on time, because the pharmacies tell me it won't be covered by insurance. They advised me to use some of my old the regular (non-XR) tabs . . . um . . . fuck that. It was much easier in England, Denmark, and France. The smallest pharmacies in the middle of fucking nowhere seemed to have whatever I needed. All I had to do was sign my life away. They had me sign something that said I would pay, which i would have done, but they never took my money – not even at Boots.

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