The Battle of the Books: The Waste Land, Ulysses and Howl

Image Source: The title page for The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

San Francisco, where I live and write, is all-too predictable. Not surprisingly, The City, as nearly everyone calls it, and its literate citizens have celebrated this year the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kerouac, the King of the Beats, and the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s epic novel, Ulysses, which still defies readers. Curiously, no one in San Francisco has celebrated, at least not yet as far as I know, the publication of T. S. Eliot’s experimental poem, The Waste Land, which appeared in print for the first time in 1922. So far, in the battle of the books, The Waste Land, which was published the same year as Ulysses, is taking an awful beating. The failure to honor it, strikes me as a reflection of the City’s cultural blindness.

Not surprisingly, Eliot, with his vigilant eye on modern literature, wrote one of the first eye-catching reviews of Ulysses, though that review says more about Eliot than it does about Joyce’s novel. Eliot describes “contemporary history” as an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy.” I don’t think John Reed, the author of Ten Days that Shook the World, his epic on the Russian Revolution, would have adopted the same or a similar perspective. Eliot also argued that Ulysses “is not a novel…because the novel is a form which will no longer serve.” Neither Ernest Hemingway nor his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who also wrote about a “waste land” in The Great Gatsby would have described the novel as a dying and a dead form. Fitzgerald’s “waste land” is a “valley of ashes…bounded on one side by a small foul river.”

It’s also “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”

My friend, Christopher Bernard, a San Francisco poet, novelist and publisher, told me, “In the 1960s, Eliot was the father figure we loved to hate.” He added, “As a poet, Eliot was great, but, like Pound, he sometimes mistook himself for a cultural arbiter and instantly became an officious, nagging schoolmarm.”

Eliot was the icon of elitist euro-centric culture. He revered Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare, didn’t care for the utopian John Milton,  and didn’t seem to know anything about the ancient epic, Gilgamesh, for example, or poetry from Asia.

Christopher Bernard offered his remarks about Eliot at an open mic that takes place on Thursdays at Simple Pleasures Café on Balboa, where most of the poetry that is read is so atrocious that I didn’t want to stay, though I did as a sign of respect that poets in the City rarely show to one another. Self-centered, they read and then leave the building. Also, they don’t enter the building and go to the mic until it’s their turn. I have witnessed much the same behavior elsewhere in northern California. So, listen up, poets.

What many of the uncivil verse makers don’t seem to appreciate is that The Waste Land deserves literary and cultural recognition, though it has not been accorded anywhere near the honors that James Joyce and Ulysses have received this year. The Waste Land has an appealing backstory but nothing as appealing as the backstory for Ulysses. Joyce’s novel was censored. Eliot’s poem wasn’t. Ulysses has a complex publication history; The Waste Land less so. English Departments in England and the US embraced Eliot and made him into a god soon after The Waste Land was published and Eliot called himself ( in 1928)  “a classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion. James Joyce knew too much about the Catholic Church, the British Empire and what Eliot called “tradition” to echo Eliot’s sentiments.

I can understand why San Francisco and other places might not want to honor The Waste Land and its author. When it comes to Eliot and his masterpiece, SF is, alas, uptight and unforgiving. Button-down Thomas Stearns looks the very antithesis of the City, or at least its liberal, leftwing and Beat enclaves . “Eliot had issues that we’re all aware of,” Bernard tells me. He sure did. Anti-Semitic and archly conservative, Eliot became a British subject, like Henry James, another quintessential un-American American who turned his back on his own country and anointed himself with the unholy waters of his adopted imperialist country.

As teachers of the “New Criticism” who rammed and crammed down my throat in college, and also pointed out long ago, and probably still do, The Waste Land ought not to be read through the prism of Eliot’s prejudices and the trajectory of his own life, which began in St. Louis in 1888 and led him to Harvard and to London, England, the City that shaped his poetry and his view of humanity itself, in much the same ways that Florence shaped Dante and the Divine Comedy. Eliot probably never got his hands dirty, not when he worked as a banker..

Granted, he became a political conservative, but there’s little if anything that’s conservative about The Waste Land, not its language, its structure, its many voices, its use of footnotes and its sense of the apocalyptic. World War I ended the Victorian and the Edwardian eras. Eliot recognized that phenomenon and translated his vision into images and words and into the very shape and rhythm of his avant-garde poem.

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” he wrote. Allen Ginsberg might have said much the same about Howl.

A cubist work of art, The Waste Land broke the back of traditional 19th century British poetry that began with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats, who were once revolutionaries, and that continued with Tennyson, Queen Victoria’s poet laureate. The revolutionary Eliot understood that romanticism and Victorian verse had to be overhauled if poetry was to be rejuvenated. He was a one-man wrecking crew, though he did have help from fellow exile Ezra Pound, another American poet and critic who moved even further to the right than Eliot and supported Mussolini and Italian fascism.

The first publishers of The Waste Land in England were Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard, both of them anti-Victorians, anti-Fascists and anti-traditionalists. In its day, their imprint, the Hogarth Press, was the London equivalent of San Francisco’s City Lights. Indeed, it might help to think of The Waste Land as an early iteration of Allen Ginsberg’s masterpiece, Howl, which broke the back of staid American poetry. Psychoanalysis in Switzerland helped Eliot in the 1920s. It helped Ginsberg in San Francisco in the 1950s.

Like The Waste LandHowl descends into a world of insanity. “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/ starving hysterical naked,” the poem begins, and yet like The Waste Land it doesn’t remain in a world of insanity. Like The Waste Land, Howl is composed of fragments, and, like The Waste Land, it offers different voices, along with surrealist images and phrases like “the crack of doom/on the hydrogen jukebox,” and “drunken taxicabs of Absolutely Reality.” In homage to Eliot, who added footnotes to The Waste Land, Ginsberg wrote a free-wheeling poem titled “Footnote to Howl.” He reconstructed Eliot even as he deconstructed him.                                                                                         In San Francisco in the mid-1950s, Ginsberg meant to follow in the footsteps of Walt Whitman, who exclaimed “I sound my barbaric yap over the roofs of the world. “A barbarian, Ginsberg could and did also write in the manner of the highly civilized seventeenth-century metaphysical poets like John Donne who Eliot revered because they yoked opposites. The Eliot who wrote The Waste Land might have appreciated Ginsberg’s yoking of the words “hydrogen” and “jukebox” which link the nuclear age and pop culture to make some explosive.

In “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg describes Walt Whitman as “dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-/teacher.” Earlier he revered Eliot and W. H. Auden. That’s not surprising. He attended Columbia College and studied with Lionel Trilling at a time when Eliot was regarded as the preeminent modern poet and a brilliant literary theorist, as exemplified by essays like “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which reveals a real dialectical understanding of the relationship between individual talent on the one hand and literary tradition on the other.

Ezra Pound whipped The Waste Land into shape by revising it. Kerouac stood over Ginsberg’s shoulder and told him, “Don’t revise.” Fortunately, Ginsberg revised Howl, much as Kerouac revised On the Road. Neither Kerouac nor Ginsberg practiced what they preached, though younger generations of poets and novelists in San Francisco and elsewhere have adhered to their sermons on art and creativity—“First thought, best thought”—not to the actual ways they wrote: by rewriting and rethinking.

The scroll edition of On the Road and the many manuscript versions of Howl depict the hard realities of revision and the discipline it took to write them. Young poets and novelists today ought to see what’s really there on the page, not what they think is there. Much as many of San Francisco’s dreamers and schemers ought to see the real, not the unreal city, even though SF might be called an “Unreal city,” to borrow the apt phrase Eliot used to describe London.

In The Worst-Case Scenario Pocket Guide to San Francisco, the authors David Borgenicht & Ben H. Winters, urge visitors to the city “to wear some flowers in your hair,” and also “for God’s sake, watch your back.” Over the past 16 months I have learned to watch my back in the Haight, the Mission and at Ocean Beach, and also to watch the traffic every time I cross a street. I don’t wear flowers in my hair, but I stop and smell the yellow roses that are blooming now on the campus of the University of San Francisco where I take an aerobics class that meets three times a week, and where I have made friends.

An urban rambler, “lonesome traveler”— as Kerouac called himself— and a flâneur, to borrow a term popularized by Walter Benjamin, I wander across city streets and remember Eliot’s lines, “April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire,/ stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.” I cross the same streets and remember Ginsberg’s description of “angleheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly/ connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of/ night.”

Unreal San Francisco and its literati might embrace Eliot and The Waste Land. It might also reject either/or thinking and learn to appreciate the yoking of opposites. In the 1960s, a decade that San Francisco has never really left behind, someone once said, “you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.”

That kind of un-dialectical thinking won’t get us out of our present dilemmas about which I heard a great deal on a Saturday afternoon at the Java Beach Café where District Four supervisor, Gordon Mar spoke to his constituents, including me. Many of us made it clear that we want more police and policing in our beloved Ocean Beach, and that we also want underlying social and economic problems to be addressed in a city where, in our view, the buck doesn’t stop anywhere, but is passed from hand to hand. Will someone up there take responsibility please and walk the walk as well as talk the talk?

On the subject of T. S. Eliot, Christopher Bernard offers the kind of double vision I appreciate. “Eliot could be an oppressive father figure we had to rebel against,” Bernard tells me. “But I go back to his poems again and again with deep and abiding pleasure.”

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.