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.

The Collected Poems, 1909-1962, by T.S. Eliot

So, right after finishing my last entry, I thought, “You know what? I am totally in the mood for some other poetry. What else is kind of short?”

Thus, I went a-googling, looking for a) a well-known poet who b) had a volume of collected works that was under 250 pages long.

At some point, my googling turned up this volume. Apparently, T.S. Eliot’s collected poetical works come in at only around 220 pages. That’s crazy low, considering he’s the most famous 20th century English-language poet. After some more googling, I realized that I could download this collection off of openlibrary.org and start reading it immediately.

But then I had a moment of pause. I thought, “Hmm…isn’t T.S. Eliot kind of dense? Didn’t you just write a whole blog post about how you’re not good at interpreting poems and how you don’t think that’s how poems are meant to be enjoyed anyway?”

So I went hunting for a poem by T.S. Eliot. And it was just my bad (good?) luck that the poem I stumbled upon was “The Journey Of The Magi”—a thoroughly accessible (and extremely awesome) poem that’s about exactly what it sounds like: the journey of the magi to go see the birth of Jesus.

With my anxieties thus assuaged, I started reading. I’d had to read “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school, so I felt like I was on pretty solid ground there. In fact, most of the early poems were pretty accessible to me (as in, I could tell what they were about). In fact, I was kind of enjoying myself. Or rather, not enjoying myself. It was the opposite of enjoyment. I was reading these poems at 9 PM, all alone, in my apartment, with its dirty floors, in front of desk, with its heaps of papers and books and office supplies, and with my feet on my bed–all around me I was surrounded by squalor and decay. And I was reading all of these poems about the emptiness and futility of life. I was reading:

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house,
And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
(from “Gerontion”)

Or

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
(from “Preludes”)

And I was thinking, “This is really not what I read right now. Aggh, my other option for tonight’s reading was to hit up Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography. I bet that would’ve been super nice and pleasant. Goshdarnit, why can’t I read more things that are just purely ‘nice’. I’m really starting to see the appeal of Celine Dion right now.”

So, when I hit “The Wasteland”, I was in kind of a dark place. Luckily, the Wasteland didn’t exacerbate that feeling, because I just did not understand most of it. I definitely came to the limits of my “no interpretation” technique. Yes, the words of “The Waste Land” were very scary, and they chilled me, but I think I escaped most of their brunt.

My next encounter was not so lucky. “The Hollow Men” begins:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when

We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

It is a horrifying poem, but also one that’s filled with beautiful phrases: “the supplication of a dead man’s hand”, “death’s other kingdom”, “sunlight on a broken column”, “this is the cactus land”. I think I loved it the most out of any of the poems in the volume.

After “The Hollow Men,” Eliot gets religious. He also becomes a bit more abstract and metaphysical and symbological. His poems no longer have these definite speakers whose characteristics can be identified. Oh yeah, and he finds God and loses some of his sense of the hopelessness of life. Or at least, that’s reputedly what happened.

Eliot’s religion seems like some pretty chilly stuff. It seems like it’s all about rejecting the vanity of human endeavor and just sort of sitting tight and trying to think about God. His first religious poem is “Ash Wednesday”, which contains persistent meditations on the image of a veiled lady who intercedes for mankind:

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

After this poem (only halfway through the book), I am just going to confess that I got a little lost. I touched base with some good poems, like the aforementioned “Gathering of the Magi” and the other Ariel Poems (which I gather were meant for an audience of general readers). Hell, one of Ariel Poems was even about Christmas. Can you believe this shit? Isn’t T.S. Eliot a little bit too pointy-headed to be allowed to write an ode to Christmas? That’s like if I wrote a story about a space marine saving Earth from an alien invasion by using the power of free will and individuality. But let’s not kid ourselves, even his Christmas poem swings around to death and to a man’s last Christmas.

Once we get beyond Christmas, to his unfinished verse dramas and his final masterpiece, the Four Quartets, I am only in and out (comprehension-wise). Magpie-like, I started accumulating the nice bits of poesy, like the following rumination on the writing life:

“So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of Ventre deux guerres-
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition-
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

But by and large, I didn’t understand much of it. I think the poems were mostly to do with Jesus. The strange thing is, though, that I wasn’t bored. I actually get bored fairly easily. Not here. There was something entrancing about the words. I didn’t have the training to read them the way they needed to be read, but there was enough magic in there to keep me reading. As Eliot wrote at the very end of the book:

By whom, and by what means, was this designed?
The whispered incantation which allows
Free passage to the phantoms of the mind?

By you; by those deceptive cadences
Wherewith the common measure is refined;
By conscious art practised with natural ease;

By the delicate, invisible web you wove—
The inexplicable mystery of sound.
(from “To Walter de la Mare”)

There was something captivating in that “mystery of sound”. I also think that Eliot might have finally worked in some kind of antedote to Prufrock and The Waste Land, because by the end of the work, that despairing feeling had dissipated. In a way, I was almost sad to see it go. It was a feeling induced by poetry, and that’s a rare enough beast in my life. And there’s something pleasurable about being able to pin down despair and stare at it under a microscope for a few hours. And it was only few hours—perhaps four hours from start to finish (and another half hour to write this blog post).

Definitely a pretty intense experience. Someday, when I have a little more knowledge, I hope to revisit this book and, perhaps, find some way to extract the rest of its riches.