J Alfred Prufrock || Pause for Poetry Linkup

If you read last month’s poetry post it might not seem like it, but I actually hated poetry for a really long time. What was the point of it? I thought it was obtuse and useless, and preferred my reading from novels and nonfiction books that, more often than not, made plenty of sense without a lot of thought.

But a good teacher can change just about anything.

Cut to sophomore year, my first honors-level English course. My teacher’s name was Mr. Calhoun – he was mostly bald and boldly animated, and his ties and shirts always matched with uncanny precision. Calhoun had something of a cult of personality around him. In homage to his daily outfits, the class before us had gotten him a tie with their faces screenprinted on it. He wore it about once a month. If you said something particularly brilliant, he would cross the room and shake your hand. A Calhoun handshake gave you eternal bragging rights and usually earned you a round of applause. Everyone loved him – it was hard not to.

So naturally, we all had a little extra respect for everything he taught us, poetry included. A few of his favorite stand out (The Red Wheelbarrow comes to mind) but there was one that seemed to take on a life of its own when he read it – T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Imagine, if you will, an animated, slightly balding man with an impeccably matched tie reading:

  And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”] My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”] Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

Calhoun was not a timid man, but as he read, he seemed it. Everything seemed timid, temporary and reversible. The poem was touching on something I knew, or inherently understood. I struggled to put a name to it, to explain that I knew what he meant, but I couldn’t, and the words just rolled on, connecting to an idea that I understood but couldn’t express.

  And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

Oh. That was just it for me – it was impossible to say what I meant. But here it was, not said, but expressed, somehow. Without being spelled out it had still found its way into my head and my heart and stayed there, and it was weird. When you read a novel, you read the words, and think about what they mean, and come to an understanding of what the author meant. But with poetry, you just get a tacit understanding of the message, and have to go back and figure out where it came from, how it was conveyed.

From then on, to me, poetry made sense, and studying it was… well, fun. Instead of reading, analyzing, then understanding, like with a novel, I’d read something, understand it, and then take it apart to see why it made sense. And then I got a bonus level of understanding – first the meaning, and then the structure. It means that every time I go back to a poem, I get something slightly different from it, something slightly more.

Which is why I’m really excited to be working with Elizabeth of This Savvy Life on a month poetry post installment! Expect poetry on the second Friday of the month from both of us for the forseeable future – it’s going to be fun.

The Love Song of J. AlfredPrufrock

Do you remember the “aha!” moment you had with some of your favorite things? What triggered it?

  • I love that this is the poem that gave you “the aha moment” haha. This is definitely one of my favorite poems of all time. And both of those quotes are totally my favorite. I’m about to finish my post and get it up.