On teaching “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”

I don't think it's possible to write today and not feel like our language is somehow becoming exhausted.* Everywhere, there's just a sense that too much has already been said and too many words have already been put together in too many combinations and that it's no longer possible to come up with anyone that's fresh and genuinely affecting. The refuge is, of course, to retreat into irony and meta-fictional and cleverness and weirdness and play: modes that admit of everything that's been done before and attempt to comment on it.

But, increasingly, I've had the feeling that this exhaustion is all just a bunch of ginned-up silliness.

For instance, my class has begun its poetry unit. (Yes, it is absurd that I'm being paid to teach undergrads how to read and write poetry). And I'm not sure how much my class is getting out of the experience, but I, personally, am learning a ton. For instance, I've finally started to gain a sense for rhyme and meter (although I wouldn't want to be tested on it or anything). And being forced to look at poems very closely has made me really appreciate some of what poets do.

Just yesterday, I was teaching "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" (already one of my more favorite poems) and I was struck with how intense and how fresh the language seems. The words aren't strange and the diction isn't ornate, but, even though the poem is over ninety years old, I've rarely heard lines that equal Eliot's in power. It's shocking to think that a couplet like "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" is just a set of words that I or anyone else could have arranged in order if it had occurred to us. Other powerful lines:

For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

Obviously, I could go on and on and bore you with lines that you've heard before. I've just quoted some of the most famous lines in the history of English poetry. And perhaps this just goes to illustrate the exhaustion of language. These lines are ninety years old and they've only rarely been surpassed. But there's something exciting in them. Something reproducible.

Most masterpieces are sterile. Proust pioneered a host of fascinating techniques in order to write his novel, but most of his innovations died immediately: they were never used again. There will never be another novel that follows in his footsteps. The same goes for so many of the modernist watermarks. For whatever reason, they feel like they're in decline. Faulkner and Woolf have no children in the modern day.

That's part of what gives rise to this feeling of exhaustion. There's a notion that each writer rips open the curtain and, through titanic effort, finds some interesting new way to say...something. But then the curtain is stitched up behind them, stronger than ever. Each success makes it a little harder for the next writer to succeed.

But Eliot's poem doesn't feel that way. To me, it feels like he's reinvigorating the language and showing us that there's still some power to the simple art of arranging words in a pleasing pattern.

* This is especially the case, I think, when you're working and writing at Johns Hopkins, the former home of John Barth and his extensive writings on the subject.

8 thoughts on “On teaching “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”

  1. Tristan

    I have to imagine that technology has made it much harder for writers. Everybody knows that great artists borrow and even steal, but it has never been easier to catch people doing it and comment on it and marginalize their talent. That makes it harder for a writer to seem new and inventive, to establish a voice that is accepted as being masterfully independent. (Not to mention all the other ways in which technology makes it harder for writers to compete these days–but on the other hand, it’s much easier for an aspiring artist to become a youtube sensation that it was for T.S. Eliot. Much, much easier.)

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I dunno, I bet T.S. Eliot would’ve been a wonderful youtube sensation. He definitely knew his way around a cat poem =)

  2. Melody Sage

    I don’t think language is exhausted, and I have read 3-5 books a week for most of my life. To compare modern literature to classics isn’t an entirely fair fight, because most of what was written then has fallen into obscurity, including the imitators. The perspective is skewed. That said, I love T.S. Eliot and still have The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock memorized from high school.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Sure, it’s not a feeling that will resonate with everyone, but either consciously or unconsciously, it’s not an uncommon feeling for people to have.

  3. Gabriel Murray

    That’s interesting, I was just talking to a friend of mine, someone who left college in her first or second year and hasn’t touched a poetry class in her life, I think. She was a science major, now a pharm tech. I asked her the other day if she read poetry/if there were any poems she was particularly fond of; she said she didn’t, and really there was only one she could think of that ever spoke to her, and that was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

    That does speak to something, I think.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Wow, that’s really something! I guess that there Lovesong really does the trick. I’d have expected it to be something like “The Raven” or “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”.

      1. Gabriel Murray

        Hey now, I finished a frivolous literature degree that was about 40% poetry and I still love Dylan Thomas. 😛 Though not, perhaps, “Do Not Go Gentle.” I still like “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” though. No comment on “The Raven.”

  4. Daniel Steinbock

    I should think that good writing is not like technology, where we perpetually expect *Progress* – the utterly new, never-before-seen, never-been-done. Good writing speaks to the times in the ancient medium of symbolic chicken-scratch. Sometimes in a limited fad-ish way, rarely in an epochal way. Times and tastes meander, fold back on themselves, reject one part of history and venerate another. Look at the way fashion and music are ostensibly about the never-before-seen and never-before-heard but are endlessly retro-izing in ways that speak to the cultural moment in some way that is experienced as ‘fresh’.

    Maybe Eliot sounds so fresh because modernists ended up ‘winning’ and setting the tone for the 20th century. If the Dadaists had won, you’d be singing a whole different blitblitblitblitblitblitblitblit

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