cover image What the Thunder Said: How ‘The Waste Land’ Made Poetry Modern

What the Thunder Said: How ‘The Waste Land’ Made Poetry Modern

Jed Rasula. Princeton Univ, $39.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-691-22577-7

Scholar Rasula (Genre and Extravagance in the Novel) celebrates the 100th anniversary of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with a stimulating cultural history of what he calls “exhibit A of modernism in poetry.” Rasula connects The Waste Land to the revolutionary approach taken by composer Richard Wagner, who introduced the concept of “endless melody,” which transformed opera into an experience “that would compel attention all the way through.” Eliot, Rasula writes, “intuitively grasped Wagner’s directive that the poet keep clear of the domain of the speechless,” and he shows how other movements, such as symbolism and futurism, played a role in Eliot’s work. Rasula masterfully unpacks the poem’s “original strangeness,” and shows it as a part of a “realm of modernist artifacts that were unabashedly confrontational, renegade, noncompliant, and full of zest,” and highlights the influence fellow poets had on Eliot: Ezra Pound acted as “a kind of literary switchboard operator” championing Eliot and providing “editorial finesse” to his work, and Marianne Moore was “a major innovator in the use of collage” with whom Eliot forged a “bond of solidarity.” Rasula’s account wonderfully traces the evolution of literary thought, and his syntheses feel fresh and exciting. The result is a refreshing reappraisal of a classic. (Dec.)