In order to begin to understand T.S. Eliot’s epic modernist poem The Waste Land, Jeanette Winterson says, “First of all… you read it out loud—then you’ll start to hear it—and second, you read it at least six times, because that’s what it needs. I can’t offer you any short cuts.” And while that instruction may sound daunting on the surface, the fact that it’s part of the commentary on Apple’s The Waste Land app means that kind of immersion is within reach of anyone with an iPad and $14.
The app, rolled out less than two weeks ago, has become a surprise runaway hit. The fact that it’s a discursive study of one of the 20th century’s more difficult poems and, at $13.99, is one of the most expensive apps available—and this for a work that’s already in the public domain—would reasonably make it a bit of a popular long shot. I can imagine the marketing people over at Touch Press, who put it together in conjunction with British publishers Faber & Faber, would have had a few moments of wondering who, exactly, would shell out for this.
Fortunately, I live with just the kind of person who would shell out for it, and was able to spend a happy Sunday afternoon noodling around with his iPad and The Waste Land. And I have to say, this one is nice.
The interface is attractive, with an interesting and mostly insightful assortment of features. The app’s centerpiece is the full published text of the poem itself. From there, depending on the orientation of the iPad, you can access Notes—annotations and detailed explanations of the Eliot’s references—and Perspectives, video commentaries from a range of people in publishing, academia and the arts who have something to say about Eliot and his work. These are a bit like popping in and out of a seminar, less than full-fledged lectures and more than sound bites, with varying degrees of pertinence—but no doubt something for everyone. I liked Seamus Heaney’s description of first discovering Eliot and learning to interpret the work, accompanied by his own poetic touch: “He’s a mystery to himself and that is the ultimate, I think, poetic guarantee.” Paul Keegan, poetry editor at Faber & Faber, explains how the notes accompanying the poem were first taken by some as a hoax, explaining “the New Statesman review said that a poem with notes is like a picture that says ‘this is a dog’ underneath it.”
There’s a gallery of related photographs and images, a facsimile of the original manuscript—in which we learn that Pound has beautiful, positively calligraphic handwriting, that the poem’s first epigraph was taken from William Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and that Ezra Pound wielded a fairly heavy editorial pen—a filmed performance of the poem by actress Fiona Shaw, and readings of the poem by various actors and two from Eliot himself, in 1933 and 1947. Sir Alec Guinness gives the most spirited interpretation, Viggo Mortensen a weirdly low-key one, and Ted Hughes just does a beautiful job. As with every feature, the text is synchronized and highlighted in blue, and when you switch from one reader to another the poem continues sequentially.
The whole thing is well done and nicely packaged. Faber’s goal was to “make the poem a conversational object,” and even if the sum effect is sort of, as my spouse puts it, “continuing ed lite,” I did get a certain amount of insight into The Waste Land that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. A bibliography would have been useful, and a way for a reader to take and save notes, but all in all it’s a good use of the platform. I do hope its success paves the way for similar treatments of other texts, because the possibilities are wonderful.
Sure, $13.99 is a bit pricey. But the production values here are high, and it’s no more of a wallet-buster than a new trade paperback or a movie and popcorn, and—if you feel like looking at it in those terms—it’s a solid literary investment. As Fiona Shaw says, “You do know that this man has scraped a rake across the 20th century and gathered a sort of leaf mold heap of what it was about.”