Those Are Pearls That Were His iPad (a review of The Waste Land App)

The Waste Land

by T. S. Eliot

Faber and Faber & Touch Press


In our culture of distraction, in which I find myself unable to sit through the entirety of a one-minute video of a dog taking tiny steps on its hind legs to flamenco music before wanting to click on to the next thing, poetry occupies a strange purgatory of time-commitment. While less active reading time is required than, of course, a novel, or even your average short story, in my experience most poems require several re-reads, a ponder, a reconsideration in a different mood. And it’s hard to find that perfect moment to return to the poem when there is an ever-growing pile of headlines, posts, emails, and alerts pouring in.

I was curious, then, to explore The Waste Land app for iPad (published by Touch Press), to see how it addressed this issue: how would it adapt a rather long, rather difficult poem for the medium on which I recently caught two scenes of Tron: Legacy over the shoulder of the guy sitting next to me on the subway?

It turns out the The Waste Land was not an arbitrary choice for an upgrade. I learned, via the app, that part of Eliot’s inspiration for the many voices in the poem was the new technology of his time, the radio. As Jeannette Winterson said in a brief commentary video, accessible by orienting the iPad horizontally and turning on the “Perspectives” feature, the radio is “the beginning of us being in a very noisy world… where there’s at least six conversations happening, and you’re always eavesdropping.” In the 90 years since the poem was published our eavesdropping has increased exponentially whether we like it or not, the clamor in our heads comprising not only the voices of radio, television, and bloggers but the woman on the bus yapping into her cell phone, the incessant mundane status updates beamed to every ready device.

O restless fingered, O serial clickers, fear not, for you do not have to spend much time sitting still listening to scholars and writers expound on Eliot (though Seamus Heaney’s memories of encountering the poet for the first time are worth listening to): in addition to the full text of the poem, the app easily allows users to flip between the final version and T. S. Eliot’s manuscript, scrawled upon by Ezra Pound. I have very little tolerance for Pound’s work, but, as a compulsive reviser who feels nothing she writes is ever good enough, I couldn’t help but admire his slash-and-burn edits across Eliot’s typed pages.

When you’ve finished exploring and are ready to dive into the poem, several guides await you: Eliot himself, reading the poem at two different points in his life (1933 and 1947), Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen. While Mortensen’s reading was a little subdued, turning the poem into a bedtime story (well, not that bedtime story), Hughes’s reading was surprisingly lively. One pleasure of having so many readers to choose from is switching between them, and at this task the app is wonderfully smooth. A small icon on the bottom releases the menu of names; tap on a line of the poem wherever you’d like Aragorn to begin reading. I was quickly caught up in listening to the same stanza over and over, toggling between voices to compare their Cockney accents in “A Game of Chess.” Eliot didn’t feign congestion when reading the cold-stricken Madame Sosostris’s predictions, but actress Fiona Shaw does an admirable stuffy nose.

Shaw’s filmed performance of the entire poem, set in one of those peeling houses so beloved by the Anthropologie catalogue, is surely the centerpiece of the app. Gorgeously shot, entrancingly acted, Shaw’s reading gives the poem real theatricality. And my arbitrary decision to play around with the app for a little while before settling in to watch the performance was fortuitous: having reviewed the manuscript first, having seen Pound’s note that “demotic” should replace “abominable” to describe a character’s French in “The Fire Sermon” made the word leap out when Shaw pronounced it. In that moment the poem had a new dimensionality. Not depth, mind you — that was there from Eliot’s earliest drafts — but history, shape, a path it had travelled over the past near-century.

You can get lost in watching Shaw’s facial expressions as she reads, by holding the iPad horizontally, or turn it upright and watch the lines of the poem scroll by under the video. This, ultimately, is the app’s most important, well-designed strength: no matter how many times you tap onto something else, turn the voices on or off, switch between manuscript and final mode, you’re always coming back to the poem, never straying from Eliot’s words. The multimedia does not detract, it enhances, and gives reading an intimidating poem the joy of exploration, of discovery. Would that other difficult texts receive such treatment. Let’s get one for Ulysses next, with readings from Bloomsday events and Joyce’s letters with his wife. Or Helen DeWitt’s novel The Last Samurai, with clips from the Kurosawa film. Reading is a balm for the unquiet mind, especially texts that are long, and difficult, and don’t inspire flash mobs. No matter how much you play around, there comes a point when it’s time to settle in and read, and that’s something we could all stand to remember.

— Nora Fussner has an MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College. She now teaches English at Brooklyn College and Kingsborough Community College, and is working on a novel.

Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for more distraction, here’s a video tour of the app from publisher Touch Press

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