When I teach American literature, I always try to teach T.S. Eliot’s famous dramatic monologue, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As a form of self-introduction on Prufrock Day, I ask my students to quote a set of lines that best describes them. Some of the greatest hits as we go around the room:
“I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
“I grow old…I grow old…/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
“I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” (usually a favorite in the Pacific Northwest, many of the sleep-deprived heads nodding in agreement)
“Prufrock” is one of those quintessential English-major poems, one that my college friends and I used to quote to each other endlessly. As an undergraduate at Berkeley, I studied Modernist Poetry with the now-deceased British poet Thom Gunn. Ah, Thom Gunn. He delivered eloquent, beautiful lectures from behind the lab counter in 1 LeConte Hall. Once in a while, he would step away from the counter and slouch genially against the blackboard, usually wearing faded black jeans and a worn black leather jacket.
(I still remember my one shining moment of in-class participation, perhaps in all my 4.5 years at Berkeley: “Do you mean ‘wanting’ as in desiring, and ‘wanting’ as in lacking?” “Exactly,” he nodded. “I couldn’t have put it better myself.” My friend M and I practically squealed. Maybe we high-fived under our desks. We thought he was beyond cool.)
Anyway, in Modernist Poetry, Thom Gunn read Eliot’s poem out loud. And we swooned, all hundred thirty-something of us, in that lecture hall. We adored Prufrock’s melancholy, his world-weary angst, even (perhaps especially) his stunningly adolescent self-absorption and insecurities. We could relate to his passionate love affair—not with the “you” of the first line, but with indecision itself. We didn’t know what we were going to do with our lives, much less our majors in English! order ventolin inhaler online Prufrock captivated us—no, Prufrock got us. Prufrock was us.
But on our Prufrock Day, Thom Gunn’s fierce gaze pierced the room’s collective marshmallow adoration: “If you don’t think that this poem is funny,” he declared, “you don’t get this poem.”
I’ll always remember that moment, because I have used it over and over to teach the poem. It makes for great conversation: many of my students protest. Understandably, they feel sorry for Prufrock, even when I point out that only Prufrock, lovable Prufrock, could write a “love song” that begins as a pastoral ballad: “Let us go then, you and I” and just after, invite the object of his love to an evening “like a patient etherized upon a table.” (Really? What kind of evening is that? What kind of woman responds to this as a pickup line?) But remembering my own college marshmallow love, vaster than empires, we work through the poem together.
I am thinking about Prufrock today because I have been thinking about my last post. “In a minute there is time,” Prufrock says, “[for] decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” What would I say to this creative writing teacher now? Why didn’t I become a professional writer?
I could answer with a number of reasons, including the undervaluing of creativity in American society, especially creativity as a form of intellectual activity; our lack of support and infrastructure for artists; the tunnel vision of graduate programs which insist that the tenure-track job at a research university is the only prize worth having.
To be clear, I don’t regret getting my doctorate, and I am still proud that I’m the first PhD in my Japanese American/Filipina American family.
But looking at my path in a certain Prufrockian light, I return to these lines:
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”