My used copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems always reminds me of those flowers Victorians would press between pages in books. For probably no reason, I associate a smell faintly similar to turpentine with both of them. Although there’s no direct connection to either, both remind me of my grandmother. The austerity of its cover and the last-gasp look of the wilted flowers makes me feel similar to the sadness I get when I’ve been in the rain too long without an umbrella. And I’ll forever identify rain and melancholy with the fall, however cliched. You can’t override such strong emotional couplings however obvious they are, especially when backed up with sensory experience.
It’s strange then that my most vivid memory of The Waste Land and Other Poems came in the summer, specifically at my summer job. Working at a music store condemned to close, business was as slow as expected. Between the maybe five customers I’d help during my six-hour shifts, my only duties were to clean the floors and counter, polish the brass instruments and tune the guitars. After finishing the first two tasks, I’d first attend to the cheap nylon-stringed Fenders before turning my attention to the two Paul Reed Smiths worth more than my monthly salary. I’d wail on them for an hour or so, stopping only if my boss caught me.
Behind the counter again with no repose from my boredom, I’d take out my copy of The Waste Land and Other Poems. Not content with just reading them, as that would only take an hour or so, I dedicated myself to memorization. I have to confess that whatever part of my brain controls recall is underdeveloped, because I can’t memorize specific information like movie quotes or song lyrics with any consistent fluency. I count it as a minor triumph in my life that I can still recite the first half of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” speech after attempting to learn it in high school, and I feel equally proud that I’m able to recount the first few pages of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” after working at it for countless hours in a music store I might have been able to save from bankruptcy had I not devoted my time to playing badass guitars and memorizing pieces of poetry.
So then why is it that I’m enamored with reading this collection of poetry in the fall? Partly because of what I said before, and partly because of what it taught me about the medium. I’ll have to admit I’m not much of an expert in poetry or its sub-genres, but reading the prosaic and image-heavy lines was, to me, revelatory. That sort of severity, without all the Aesthetic fluff, became a welcome mat of sorts. I felt more comfortable than ever reading poetry, namely because it felt like I could participate in its unfolding. Because of this inviting quality of The Waste Land and Other Poems, I started carrying it around with me wherever I went. And even more important, I started writing my own poems.
This freedom to write for some reason welled up more in the fall. Maybe because of the beginning signs of cold, isolating weather, maybe because I felt lonelier then. But that gift was primarily given to me by this collection. It became the bridge my timid subconscious finally crossed to connect with my emotional core. Regardless of the fact that it conjures up austere images like pressed flowers or that I still can’t quite memorize all of “J. Alfred Prufrock,” I always carry The Wasteland and Other Poems around with me, if only as concession to Eliot’s opening plea: “Let us go then, you and I.” The feeling I get from that line casts out any other besides the ones I get as I’m walking alone with the coolness of the autumn leaves wrapped around me, the sad but contemplative, reflective ones that are so much a part of whatever shit I put on a page. The feeling of squeezing out every cell of its substance, of pressing the soul between the pages of a book in the hopes of transfusing a little of yourself somewhere other than your physical body.
So, I’ll read again, “let us go then, you and I,” and I’ll follow unflinchingly, memorizing one line at a time.