For the past few weeks I’ve been reading T.S. Eliot’s 1922 The Waste Land, published the same year as James Joyce’s Ulysses. Both poem and novel retain, even after nearly a century, a reputation for difficulty; but to quote Eliot himself, from his 1921 essay on “The Metaphysical Poets”:
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. … Those who object to the “artificiality” of Milton and Dryden sometimes tell us to “look into our hearts and write.” But that is not looking deep enough; Racine or Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts.
Well, our civilization has become more various and complex, not less, since 1922, and indeed there’s some question as to whether literature or art can deal with it at all. I’m firmly convinced that it can, and that Eliot and Joyce, along with William Gaddis, prove it so, even if they are, as Gaddis described himself, the “last of something.” And the same goes for music, architecture, painting, and all the rest. It’s our responsibility to meet them at least halfway. (Indeed, as Eliot said of Ulysses, Joyce’s method “is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” — a statement echoed by Gaddis’s “My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order.” Gaddis claimed never to have read Ulysses, and I take him at his word; his method is not Joyce’s.)
Still, one wants signposts. I recommend the Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land, edited by Michael North, as a reading text; the volume includes not only an authoritative text but also contextual material, including excerpts from Eliot’s sources; various commentaries on the poem’s composition and publication; Eliot’s own statements on the poem; and a good selection of critical essays. If one doesn’t feel quite ready to read it, one can have it read to one; fortunately, Alec Guinness presents it most admirably.