‘A Journey with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land’: Mike Tooby, Rommi Smith and Damien O’ Keeffe reviewed by Ellie Wriglesworth

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is literary marmite. You either love it, or you hate it. Published in 1922, it is widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the twentieth century. Speaker Antony Dunn describes it as ‘allusive and elusive’, a poem that simultaneously demands and defies interpretation. It necessitates individual engagement, but seems consciously bent on thwarting it wherever possible. Dunn stated that ‘there are as many ways to interpret it, as there are people that have read it’. Indeed, ‘A Journey with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land’ began with yet another reading of the poem, a dramatic performance enacted by poet Rommi Smith and actor Damien O’ Keeffe. Having personally only considered The Waste Land through analysis of the written word, the performance was certainly educational. Smith and O’ Keeffe’s refreshing new take on the poem demonstrated its unlimited potential to be recreated through other’s interpretations. Smith and O’Keefe’s method of performance was to verbally bounce off each other, each speaking a section to the other as if in conversation. Whilst impressed, I did find it difficult to completely appreciate their efforts. At times, the dramatic pauses and meaningful glances exchanged with the audience indicated a conscious indulgence in cliché. However, whilst watching the performance, I struggled to think of a way in which to dramatize a poem that is so ostentatious, without adopting these certain pretensions.

After the poetry reading, the audience were introduced to Mike Tooby, an independent curator, who spoke extensively about his work in creating an exhibition about The Waste Land that will be opened in 2018 in Margate. In his discussion of what the exhibit will contain, he placed particular emphasis on their preoccupation with visualising The Waste Land, by trying to find correlations between certain parts of the poem, and visual art. In his presentation he showed the audience a few pictures that members of his workshop had suggested could be visual representations of the poem. In explaining the project Tooby gave us an example of a workshop they conducted in which the volunteers each read an excerpt aloud. This focus on the spoken word was an attempt to establish how people ‘saw’ the poem in their mind’s eye, and how a visual understanding may provoke alternative readings.

By far the most interesting part of the talk was when Smith, O’Keeffe and Tooby were asked about their conception of the Waste Land. An incredibly interesting discussion ensued where topics such as time, apocalypse, war, ghosts, trauma, and the poem’s relationship to music were articulately expressed. The Q and A at the end of the session also provoked some detailed and intriguing answers, especially the question concerning the sanctity of Eliot’s poem, and whether constant re-interpretation somehow resulted in a demeaning of the original work.

Rommi Smith’s response was a perfect way to end the evening, leaving the audience with an added titbit to mull over on the way home. She stated that each interpretation, far from damaging the poem, makes it more valuable. The true power of the poem is its ability to enable individuals to establish a connection with it, to form their own perceptions influenced by their personal experience. Poetry can be renewed and reimagined by all those that read it, and thus it will never lose its potency. This was definitely an evening that encouraged you to see The Waste Land, and poetry in general, in a different way. Although often considered an elitist poem, the new perspectives onThe Waste Land provided by O’Keeffe, Smith and Tooby demonstrated the inherent value of individual interpretations. These were not people telling you what to think from an intellectual pedestal; instead they seemed more interested in prompting us to re-evaluate our preconceptions and think for ourselves.

(Written for the Ilkley Literature Festival)

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