Since high school, my favorite poet has been T. S. Eliot. As a poet myself, you couldn’t really tell; my style is much more similar to Emily Dickinson and Alfred Lord Tennyson, with a little Byron thrown in there. But Eliot remains my favorite, in part because I can’t imitate him. Every time I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and especially “Journey of the Magi,” I am defeated by his rhythms, choice of words, but most of all his content. My poetry is good for what it is, but there always a sneaking doubt in my mind that says, “well, I’ll never be as good as T. S. Eliot…”
My least favorite poem by my most favorite poet is “The Waste Land.” I know, some of you fellow Eliot enthusiasts are gasping in horror. “The Waste Land” is Eliot’s undisputed greatest work, his magnum opus, if you will. And I recognize that it’s a seminal work in the craft of poetry and represent a shift in style for the entire art form. But I’ve only read in completely though once, and that was for a college class. Each time I try, I get frustrated – not with the poem, but with myself, my lack of focus, and my inability to understand it. And I’d wager that this is a feeling that a lot of “The Waste Land’s” readers have felt at least once, even if they won’t admit it.
A central figure in “The Waste Land” is the character Tiresias, the famous blind prophet from Greek myth. His most famous appearance is in Oedipus Rex, where he reveals what eventually ends (spoiler alert) with Oedipus poking out his own eyes. The highlight of his appearance in “The Waste Land,” however, is his experience as both a man and a woman.
The myth, when boiled down to almost nothing, says Tiresias was a pawn in a bet the gods had going about which of the genders enjoyed sex more. Tiresias, being a mortal man, was transformed into a woman to compare and contrast the pleasures of sex from both perspectives. His answer? If 10 is the total enjoyment of sex, women enjoy it 7 and men enjoy it 3. Being men, this pissed the gods off something awful. In a true shoot-the-messenger fashion, they instantly struck Tiresias blind. As a consolation prize, though, they gave him the ability to perfectly foresee the future. A fat lot of good it did him; when he told people what would happen in the future they never listened to him, despite the fact that he was always right.
“The Waste Land” isn’t about Tiresias directly, but uses him to further explore the intricacies of gender, the differences between them, and what it means to be male or female. I’m surprised David Bowie didn’t do an entire album based on “The Waste Land,” since this is right up his alley. Instead, we get a little retelling/recasting of the whole Tiresias/Waste Land characterization in Genesis’s “The Cinema Show.”
Now, “The Cinema Show” is NOT “The Waste Land.” When they stand next to each other, you want to push them apart. In fact, if “The Waste Land” were a human body that suddenly sprouted a second head and the two heads started arguing with each other, the second head would be “The Cinema Show.”
There’s a passage from “The Waste Land” that talks about a woman simply referred to as “the typist” and a young man and their sexual encounter. “The Cinema Show” has similar characters, but Gabriel calls upon another source (Shakespeare) and calls them “Romeo” and “Juliet.” Eliot’s account of this encounter is dark and unsettling, filled with harsh and alarming physicality. In it, we have the injustice and imbalance of the man taking by force exactly what he wants from the woman, and the woman not even trying to resist. At the end, the woman is left empty while the man is full. In Peter Gabriel’s recasting of this story, however, it takes a near-180; it’s a little silly, a little playful, and dare I say romantic. The only hint we have that it’s the same story is the imperative of Romeo’s words: “I WILL make my bed with her tonight…” But why WILL he? ‘Cause he brought her chocolate. Giving the typist free candy probably isn’t something that would even occur to Eliot’s “young man carbuncular.”
If we only have the two options of Eliot’s somber and hopeless approach to the gender divide and Gabriel’s “whatcha cryin’ about?” attitude about the same thing, I’d choose Gabriel’s. But it strikes me, as it does with a lot of things, that there must be a third option. If I’m looking for something and I’m not happy with what I find, I’m gonna keep looking.
From my own perspective, gender and its offshoots are not universal for all people… at all, really. There are as many different ways to be men as there are men. But at the same time, I don’t hold with the loose and fast “gender-don’t-mean-a-thing” attitude that’s so prevalent in our society today. Despite some people trying to deny it, men and women are just different. That’s not a limiting thing, or at least it doesn’t have to be. But there’s nothing wrong with the exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman, or even if it means anything at all. I’ve always thought that questions lead to answers if you ask the right person. I believe there is an answer to the question of the gender divide, and it’s NOT as simple “boys play sports and girls play with dolls.” Whoever said that lacked imagination.