Monday, January 3, 2011

Remembering The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

When I was in high school, my teacher played us a record of T. S. Eliot reading his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  It made a big impression on me.  I'm not a poetry person.  But there was something about it.

If I'm remembering correctly, I interpreted the poem as being about getting old, and about sex.  As a sixteen year old girl, I was much concerned with both of these topics.  I remember feeling acutely the sense that sense that as a girl, I would only really be youthful and attractive for a few more years.  I remember the feeling every adolescent has, of how it can not be horrible to become an adult, being boring, losing one's hair, knowing one has lost the vitality of youth.  How could that not be the worst thing in the world?

And I also remember identifying, to some extent, with the women in the poem, who "come and go," and with whom Prufrock has such a complex relationship, wanting their attention but somehow dismissive of them at the same time.  It was one of those moments of girlhood when one is reminded of the ways in which being a woman can mean having something men want, even by doing nothing but existing, which is weird when you're young and stays weird as you get older.

I don't remember what, if anything, the teacher taught us about the poem.  But I do remember vividly the sadness the poem made me feel, and the way "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" seemed the bleakest and saddest thing ever. "Well," I thought, "that's no way to live."  A message reinforced by other art experience, and of course, by rock and roll music.

But of course, now that I'm older, I know that there really is no other way of living.  Even Keith Richards has stopped taking drugs and lives a quiet orderly life.  Because eventually the opposite of a quiet orderly life isn't fun, it's poverty and chaos.  Worse, as they say, than the alternatives.

This way of seeing things, of course, makes the poem seem even bleaker and sadder than I found it when I was young. 

In the interest of science, in preparing to write this post, I checked out what other people think the poem is about, and of course it turns out there's all this complicated stuff about modernity and living the self-conscious existence of modern life that I hadn't understood at all, and about how Prufrock can't be a hero because he's worried about what other people will think of him.  Which is all fine, but as usual seems to me such a guy point of view.  I mean, people who don't care what others think about them aren't heroes, they're assholes, and people who aren't self-conscious around others don't know the first thing about love and infatuation.  A life without the intense self-consciousness and anxiety of a crush?  No life at all. 

Probably I am oversimplifying something elegant and complex, and probably this is what my teacher was trying to talk about while I was daydreaming the class away imagining the women with their bare arms and bracelets and thinking about the old man walking on the beach in his cotton trousers and brooding on the tragedy that we couldn't all stay sixteen forever.

A tragedy, by the way, that I still haven't gotten over.  How the rest of you are so easy-going about it, I don't understand.

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