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The Waste Land App reviewed

Seamus Heaney says it in the Perspectives section of Faber’s beautifully produced app of The Waste Land:

Eliot always was accompanied always by interpretation. There was an official way of reading him from very early on and therefore I never had that experience of being alone and a little bewildered and then coming to it, being excited by it, getting to know it on one’s own.” Does this elegant app help readers to be alone with the poem or force us all back into class to be told how to do it properly?

I had the opposite of Heaney’s experience of Eliot:  I’ve loved the music of his words since I came across them as a teenager, have never studied Eliot’s work formally nor expected to understand it, but profoundly enjoyed the bewilderment. I’ve never thought of him as intimidating because I have always encountered him alone, in a setting where nobody was judging my critical responses. Now I’m finding this multi-layered app intimidates as well as illuminates, though it absolutely doesn’t try to tell us what it all means. Eliot’s own notes were thought at the time to be a parody of footnotes, and actually the videoed providers of perspectives here mostly end up saying make of it what you will.

The gallery is my favourite bit, giving us a clutch of relevant postcards – of Bob Dylan, Dante Alligheri, the first Mrs Eliot, a crowd of people crossing the river Thames,

‘so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.’

These images create real breathing space around the poem. They evoke, inform and leave the poem be.

There’s a picture of the first edition of Prufrock in a plain brown cover, then all the pages of the typescript manuscript with the inky slashes of Pound’s fierce corrections and comments. The notes, presented in a Comment-press style, can be brought up when wanted, then brushed away if you want the text plain. Likewise it’s a doddle to switch between the different audio readings or switch them off entirely.

The navigation works a dream and the design is classy in that Faber way. It doesn’t do anything more than an old CDRom could really, but the speedy app-iness of it makes this a personal reading experience rather than a clunky piece of ‘edu-tainment’.

Fiona Shaw performs the whole piece on video from a Dublin room, and there are interviews with a few different Eliot experts, including an ex-punk rocker alongside Raine, Heaney and Jeanette Winterson in the Perspective Section. There’s a kinky kind of pleasure in rubbing my finger across the faces of Famous Seamus and friends to rewind them.

Of the readings of the entire text, Ted Hughes is thunderous, Eliot scratchy monotonous, Shaw’s performance (which I loved on stage) too acTORish up close for my poetic taste. Despite his American accent, Viggo Mortensen’s reading of the poem comes closest to the voice I hear in my head as I read. Being able to read and listen along and then close my eyes as the words wash over is luxurious and something I want to be able to do with lots more poems. In fact this feels exactly how poems should be consumed.

I’m writing this review on my way back from a(nother!) conference on digital publishing, this one at the Scottish Universities Insight Institute in Glasgow, where I’ve been arguing (again) that the future of the book is about readers and writers not the publishing industry. It is compelling new work made fresh for these platforms by living authors which should be leading the way, not lavish enhancements of guaranteed classics. The Waste Land still feels like a wonderful learning resource rather than a digitally illuminated text or work of art in its own right. Which is fine, because it really is wonderful.

Chris Meade is Director of if:book. He is also a poetry lover and was Director of the Poetry Society for six years.

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