The Waste Land: Taking on a Giant

The Waste Land: Taking on a Giant

T.S Eliot It is no surprise that Faber and Faber would try to tackle the great behemoth of Modernist poetry that is The Waste Land. T.S Eliot did, after all, work there for 40 years, so what better place would there be to start in digital adaptations? But inevitable questions have to be asked of an app that tries to adapt and engage with such a complex text, and you are forced to wonder whether the adaptation has to be as ambitious as the original, after all, as the app store does say, ‘The Waste Land for iPad brings alive the most revolutionary poem of the last hundred years for a 21st Century audience.’

At the very core of its purpose, The Waste Land refuses to open itself up for a novice readership. Faber have taken on the role of teacher and mentor for the poem, providing what they deem to be an appropriate range of material sourced from their archives, or created for the app. It provides a variety of information, from videos interviewing academics, to a slightly bizarre interpretive reading. Each feature works well with understanding a few elements, but mainly they simply create a more complex reading. The app allows the ability to choose from seven different poets or actors to doing readings, with two different versions of T.S Eliot; they can view annotations of the original manuscript and are offered 22 images related to the poem from an in-built gallery, but these do not aid in the reading or understanding, they instead draw your attention away from the text itself.

The trouble with trying to evolve from the book in its physical form into an app is that the process can omit a traditional opening. That does not mean the first chapter of a book or poem, but instead an introduction, foreword or even an ‘about the author’ page. This is where one might start trying to grapple with the poem, if they were previously unaware of The Waste Land’s impact on culture. They would find an introduction explaining the history of the poem, read the poem (or, perhaps vice-versa) and then move on to explanations of the aesthetics of the poem. But there is no first page to turn to; there are tops and bottoms, but also lefts, rights, ins and outs. There is a menu, yes, but this gives the poem no significance or hierarchy over the rest of the content available. Faber and Faber attempt provide everything to decode the poem, but it starts to feel as though, in an attempt to release a quick digital adaptation, they have simply thrown a previously unseen archive of information into an app and left out the almost essential Prufrock that you come to expect with a hard copy of The Waste Land.

The lack of direction and introduction aside, the app does provide an interesting concept of what can be achieved through digital adaptation. When browsing through the menu and applications it is apparent that aesthetics are appropriate to the text. They are somewhat plain but purposefully academic, though often clunky, with a frustrating fading scrolling feature. For those who were previously aware of T.S Eliot’s purpose in literature, this app would go far to provide a lot of interesting material, but as the makers are fully aware, it is clearly not the next stage in publishing.

3 thoughts on “The Waste Land: Taking on a Giant

  1. I have to agree that this app could use some type of introduction. This poem is regarded as one of the most influential pieces 20th century literature, a fact I had to discover on Wikipedia. You’d think they would have some kind of ‘editor’s notes’, exactly as Ashley has suggested, that shed some light on the history and origin of this poem and how epic it is.

    That being said, it did have some promising features. Being a complete novice with poetry, I found that being able to have the poem read to me was an incredibly engaging way to experience the poem for the first time. Reading it myself would have felt like an uphill struggle, but this simple addition really helped to break me into it. I especially recommend Alec Guinness and the 2nd Eliot reading. The rest didn’t seem nearly as compelling (that goes for the performance too). I also liked how the line was highlighted, allowing you to seamlessly (for the most part) switch back to a part you may have missed/misheard.

    It seems they really did a half arsed job with this app, as there a lot of simple additions that could be made that would improve it. For example, you could take advantage of the fact a single line can be selected by having a break down of what it means along side the text (like what you would find in an academic Shakespeare handbook).

    I enjoyed listening to those two performances, and reading the poem a few times on the iPad was fine, but all this app has really done is make me want to buy a physical edition of The Wasteland, which is probably exactly what Faber & Faber want me to do!

  2. As someone who has experienced the frustrating process of studying The Wasteland I found this app to be extremely useful!

    When studying The Wasteland during my first-year at university I found it to be an extremely difficult poem. I spent much of my time looking for sources that would help me to understand it rather than reading it myself. I was actually put off reading it by how difficult it is. However, the sections within this app in which the poem is performed or read aloud make the poem more enjoyable. As I don’t understand it I find it difficult to know where the intonation is meant to be and so reading it becomes a chore as everything remains in the same tone, going on and on and on! When listening to others read it, particularly Elliot himself, I am able to understand the poem slightly better. Although I still find the poem as a whole confusing, sections of it begin to make sense and, whilst I’m still lost as to the meaning behind the words, I am now able to follow the several mini-narratives going on within the poem. And, regardless of whether I fully understand The Wasteland I actually enjoy listening to it in a way that I was unable to when reading myself.

    Whilst the readings help me to follow the poem on a basic level, the notes and perspectives give me some insight into the possible meaning behind the poem and the contexts that might have influenced Elliot. This adds another level to my understanding, one that may not be sufficient to help me write an entire essay on the poem, but that will definitely help me to appreciate and understand the more highly academic criticism of The Wasteland.

    As I’ve already mentioned, I found reading the poem to be quite a struggle, something which alienated me from the work. The gallery and manuscript in particular make the poem more relatable, it gives the writing itself a context that makes you feel closer to the poem. Additionally, as the poem is so long and difficult to read, finding out about its context through images and short descriptions gives your brain a well-needed rest whilst still imparting valuable information! By captioning some of the images with lines from The Wasteland I can get a more basic understanding of the potential meaning behind/context of specific parts of the poem. Again, gaining this knowledge through imagery provides you with a different type of resource from the other text-based aspects of the app.

    Additionally, whilst the poem is extremely confusing, I find the The Wasteland app fairly easy to navigate, everything is clearly labelled and the sections of the app are well displayed on the homepage. However, I do appreciate that if you are new to the poem some sort of introduction and chronological menu would make the app easier to navigate and therefore, the poem easier to engage with.

    Overall, I don’t feel as though I’m reading in the traditional sense, as you may have gathered from my previous blog post I am very much a print-books person! However, in this case this doesn’t matter to me as I didn’t enjoy reading The Wasteland in the traditional way. By using this app I am left with the same understanding of the poem as I would usually get through reading, but the experience of reaching this understanding is very different.

  3. I thought this app was quite interesting and it looked like it would be extremely useful if you were trying to study The Wasteland.

    As an app it was quite easy to navigate. The main menu was clear and the fact you could swap so easily between the different modes using the buttons at the bottom was very useful as you didn’t have to keep on returning to the main screen. I also really liked the search function as it meant that people could easily find a specific quote from the poem without having to re-read the whole thing looking for it.

    One of my favourite things about this app was the notes feature where you could select a line from the poem and it would give you some context about it. There have been many times when I have wished poetry came with that sort of feature as even if you know the basic context, being able to understand a phrase or couple of lines in more depth is very useful when it comes to understanding what’s going on.

    Overall, I thought the app was very well done. It manages to engage people who learn in different ways by providing readings and pictures as well as the plain text. It also manages to give wider context, through the ‘Perspectives’ section where people talk not only about the poem but Eliot in general, as well as giving specific context through the ‘Notes’ feature. If I was about to study this poem, I would definitely be using this app to help me access the poem better.

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