I studied The Waste Land at A Level. I have a particular fondness for the sights and sounds I encountered there. I know about those citations. I made a reading list from those alone that I still haven’t followed up completely - in part because the list has kept on growing within itself suggesting further reading. However, although I am familiar with conceptual writing, I hadn’t considered Eliot’s poem in that vein. In her introduction to Unoriginal Genius Marjorie Perloff tells how negative criticism of Eliot’s poem railed against his extensive use of citation and collage in The Waste Land. A rebuke to Eliot then - recycling is pinching, is cheating, is being a sham, because a poet is expected to come up with their own poem, using their own words and phrases. But where do poets get this unique and personal word bank from? Is the task never to repeat any combination of words that has been used before? In Unoriginal Genius Perloff argues that conceptual writing, writing that uses language created in other texts and language forms, can lead to originality. But this is a paradox - copying is original? How does that work out?
The intertextuality in The Waste Land brings in meaning, extends it out. We recognise the presence of those other texts, songs, speech as coming together to form this Waste Land and enjoy that. The Waste Land, that unoriginal imposter, continues to be the runaway favourite of all Eliot’s poetry. Our lived experience of language is not to have it compartmentalised into separate ‘types’ of language or language events - we can be hearing a conversation while listening to the radio and skimming a magazine, while a multitude of background sounds fade in and out. Poetry filters and concentrates words and sounds but likes to give a full account by using all materials available. The words have to come from somewhere - word banks, techniques applied that may even produce a word out of making a typo that sounds intriguing and extends an existing an word(s) into a new word, with other meanings suggested. The old and the new can imbue each other with life, can refresh each other. So ‘copying’ can create something new with re-cycled materials. Interesting concept, hey?
It is worth adding, that from experience, I now approach conceptual poetry with caution - not only because within the good, the bad and the ugly can be waiting for you. It is that the act of submerging yourself in the concept of conceptual writing can have the nasty side effect of making you think you have nothing left to offer in poetry - it happened to me anyway - but the cure to that is to return to those writers who remind you that just one poem contains infinite possibilities that would take a lifetime to address. And that’s on top of any reading lists you might still have waiting for your attention.