Teaching “The Waste Land” Part One: The Burial of the Dead

To read the other posts in this series on T. S. Eliot’s poem, click HERE.

Teaching “The Waste Land” presents a daunting task, yet one that provides a great opportunity to practice the oft-overused progressive maxim: Learn with your students. I, myself, do not fully understand the poem, so teaching it means that you willeliot.jpg have to say, “I don’t know,” that you will have to believe that your students may have a better insight on an aspect of the poem than you, and that you will discover meaning in the poem together, often at the same time.

In a sense, you really do have to bury the dead: the assumptions of students about what poetry is; traditional modes of interpreting literature; your pride; maybe even the high level of writing to which you surely have already brought your students (even my best writers find it difficult to write well about something they do not understand well). But, like the end of the first section of the poem, what is buried has potential to rise again: the narrator asks about the corpse planted in the garden, “Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” which indicates that, despite massive amounts of despair, there is at least a small possibility of hope, an apt metaphor perhaps for the teaching of a poem such as this.

So the beginning of the week and a half we spend tearing this poem apart begins with a disclaimer for my students: You will not like this poem, and you will likely think that Eliot was smoking crack. You will think this is absolutely insane and that it doesn’t mean anything. However, my goal is not to get you to like the poem, or even to fully understand it. My goals is to get you to see that it is not entirely insane, and that there may be a small thing or two we can learn from it. If, at the end of this week, you think the poem is only mildly crazy, then I will consider our work a success.

And we begin. We read the poem in its entirety out loud as a class. I read a good portion of it to show them a good pacing and rhythm. Then I ask them to read, one at a time, for as much or as little as each one wants. By the end of day one, they are utterly confused and skeptical, which I think is fantastic. I advise against playing the version of Eliot reading the poem at first. I save that for the end. Personally I think there is something romantic about Eliot’s reading (in the same way I think that Frank Sinatra is romantic: they both speak of what to me are simpler, yet more elegant times, when men wore suits and fedoras and smoked pipes, but I digress). Students think Eliot sounds like their grandfather, which he does, and that negatively biases them against the poem from the start. They already have enough of that.

The reading takes the better part of a class period, and after, I simply let it simmer. In my next posts I will dive in to the activites we do together, both the ones that have worked and the ones that have not. But for now, I simply want to encourage you to consider teaching this poem. The essays the students wrote about it this year were actually pretty good, and I think it is such a reward for them (academically and emotionally) to conquer something so difficult. I emphasize constantly that this poem is a college-level poem. They love that.


Chris has agreed to do a series of entries on teaching “The Waste Land.” (I guess we will have Waste Land Thursdays.) The method of Chris’ examination of the text along with his students caused them to become very involved in the piece. Because I was struck by his ability to encourage kids in a “typical” class to be able to explicate such a difficult text, I encouraged him to write on this topic. BEN

Click on the picture of Eliot to see a post about him from the picture’s source. You can also watch a youtube video of him reciting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” there.

2 responses on “Teaching “The Waste Land” Part One: The Burial of the Dead

  1. Fanny

    I’m working on the construction of a paper about the waste land and I’m defeanding the idea that this difficult poem is apropiate for young students. I’m glad to discover that it is possible. I’m a chilean student of English pedagogy and I strongly belive that good literature is very necessary in order to help students to be critical thinkers.

  2. Babu

    I’m teaching this poem at present and your viewr are petty interesting. Looking forward to see how exactly you made it interactive and the kind of assignments you gave for them.

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