As I began the column “Poets Who Make Us Better” for Interlitq (The International Poetry Quarterly) T.S. Eliot came to mind – not because his poetry led us out of the wistfulness of romanticism into the honesty of modernism (which it did), but because, in the United States, my high school English teacher forced our small class to read the “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Although Eliot wrote the poem from the perspective of an old-fashioned, socially-inept, aging man, the poet himself was a college student, not much older than the baffled teens who studied his work. At the time, of course, I had no idea what the poem meant, especially since it began with a quote from Dante’s Inferno! Nevertheless, the opening lines in English invited me into a new experience, and, immediately, Eliot’s skillful use of figurative language startled me into something I’d never thought about before: Poetry can be brilliant!
Lines from the first verse give a glint of that poetic brilliance:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
Remember: I said “poetic brilliance,” which has little, if anything, to do with poetic prettiness.
Regardless, if you have ever had the nauseating experience of being “etherized,” you may recall the fog accompanying that older form of anesthesia, which, thank God, is no longer in use, except among residents of countries who can’t afford the newer, pricier ways of getting a patient ready for the surgery that inevitably follows.
So, from the start, Eliot invites us to accompany him before gesturing with a hand-sweep across the sky to show a hazy grey evening that contributes to the dismal mood. The “half-deserted streets” and “cheap hotels” add to the gloominess before the poem jolts our sensibilities with a precise, concise, and, yes, brilliant simile that depicts a city scene:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Insightful phrasing like that does not come from one’s imagination, but from the outer sight of what’s actually present. This highly observant “nowness” is where Eliot had a turn at altering the course of poetic flow in literary history.
Before he began to write for publication, reams of poems had been written to “my lady, my love.” Or, poets had painted idyllic landscapes flowering with nostalgia, or they addressed abstract matters having little to do with everyday lives. But like an interesting (albeit shy) tour guide, Prufrock invited us to accompany him on a journey.
Once the speaker of the poem reached his destination, Prufrock began paying close attention to a particular movement that caught his eye:
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Frankly, I would like to walk around, talking of Michelangelo and maybe Dante too, but Prufrock is clearly not in the mood. Instead, his glance shifts, drifting toward another movement that catches his attention:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes.
Oh, to be that observant and write such amazing metaphors! And yet, Prufrock himself evokes pity. He goes on to speak of the time needed for people to do whatever they will in life, while recognizing that he himself wastes a lot of time by being mired in uncertainty:
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
As he turns in on himself (which high school students are also apt to do!) Prufrock reveals his self-doubts – from thinning hair to, ironically, being unable to express himself and, therefore, being misunderstood and likely to misunderstand others. But, instead of saying, “I feel so insignificant,” he shows that by saying:
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
Prufrock’s indictment against himself most likely felt true for Eliot too, and perhaps even urged him toward his poetic greatness. But, as this poem unfolds, Prufrock continues to observe people while trying to figure out where he (and maybe Eliot) might fit in. Eventually this led to the troubling question:
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
At first, the question seems rather egotistical, but, in light of Prufrock’s insecurities, that assessment dims. For, in the decades following the high school student I was and college student Eliot was, I’m convinced the question “Do I dare?” occasionally haunts those of us who want to make a discernible difference in the world.
Do I dare to set things right? Do I dare try to make life better for someone or something somewhere? Do we dare to pray, to hope, to take a chance on the unknown? Eliot did.
Caught between his uncertainties and his calling, between his life in America and in Europe, and between two world wars, the poet dared to expand his poetic sight by exploring the inner self, the impact of social confinement, the quality of time, the literary edges of poetry, and the spiritual struggles we all face – and embrace or deny.
The chances Eliot dared to take earned him a Nobel Prize in literature as well as the honor of being a pioneer in the modern movement of poetry and, ultimately, of having an appreciated place in the classroom of my high school, which I now appreciate too.
originally published in “Poets Who Make Us Better” column on Interlitq