The final paragraphs of Mary Karr’s introduction to the Modern Library paperback edition of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” are too stunning not to reproduce here, especially in anticipation of a conference where Mary will be speaking and Eliot’s plays will be explored:

9780375759345_p0_v1_s260x420But why read something so darkly despairing? And repeatedly? I mentioned its beauty before. But the poem acts for me as a sort of vaccine against the horror it describes by injecting a nonlethal dose of it. One can’t get the same immunity by abstractly, willfully constructing a theory about the world and one’s place in it. Theories are fine, but unfueled by feeling they remain gaseously theoretical. Few human beings can run very long on the fumes of an ideal. I begin each morning fairly intent on seizing the day and often abandon that wisdom with the first snapped shoelace. “The Waste Land” delivers a dose of feeling that enters you with a hard jolt. It changes you, for perhaps only passion can lend conviction to such a change.

If you’re no stranger to such soul-paralyzing mind states as the poem creates, it may also serve as balm to the loneliness such states evoke by speaking out to your own hybrid species of spiritual pain.

In this way, it can work like the miracle of communion–you take the Eucharist of the writer’s words into the rough meat of your body in order to be transformed by someone else’ mysterious passion. It brings you into a community of like sufferers. There’s healing in that, I think, despite the old Dale Carnegie wisdom that reading such stuff is a depressing wallow in the mud of one’s own misery. I disagree. Having once kept an apartment in similarly barren regions to those in the poem, I return there now through art–or memory or premenstrual syndrome, or by intensely loving friends still stranded there. Reading the poem gives me conviction to live my life, not with despair and angst rendered, but with the alertness the poem demands. People spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in therapy for the same sense of presence in one’s life, the same fusion of inner self with outer experience. The mere exercise of attention–eyes wide, ears pricked, heart open–is not a bad way to move through the world.

To read “The Waste Land”, go here.