First read: 1987
Owned since: 1987
I can still hear Mrs. Masterson reading "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to my senior-year English class. The meter charmed me and it struck me as very romantic, but I didn't get it until years later. My friend Tom knew most of it by heart when we were in college -- he probably still does -- and that was when the imagery really caught my imagination, the idea of the yellow cat fog and the ragged claws scuttling across the silent seas.
"Prufrock" is a young man's idea of middle age -- Eliot was only 26 or 27 when he wrote it -- but it is uncanny in its prescience.
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous,
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous --
Almost, at times, the Fool.
No one believes that about himself at 27, but it is the essence of midlife, that realization that the play really isn't about you. Those lines just kill me, not least because of their perfect punctuation.
But "Prufrock" is not why I took this book off my nightstand (where it lives). No, April is National Poetry Month, and "The Waste Land" is at least part of the reason why:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
"The Waste Land" remains the high point of Eliot's career, and possibly the high point of 20th-century English poetry. It was the product and/or the cause of a nervous breakdown in Eliot's early 30s, and academics still argue about its allusions and imagery. Like most great poetry, it is best read aloud.
I bought this book the year after I got out of college, and have read it literally to pieces. At different times of year I go back to different poems; the collection also includes "The Gift of the Magi," "Ash Wednesday," "Gerontion," and "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," among others.
Five Random Songs
"God Give Me Strength," Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. The theme song for a terrific, underseen movie starring Illeana Douglas, and one of the all-time great breakup songs.
"Late for the Sky," Jackson Browne. Wow, more breakup music. "You never knew what I loved in you/I dont know what you loved in me/Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be."
"Blues is King," Marshall Crenshaw. Cool and wistful.
"Thirsty," The National. I have my brother-in-law Scott to thank for introducing me to The National -- heirs apparent to Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen -- but this song is from a collection John Connolly put together for the UK edition of The Unquiet.
"Love Me Do," The Beatles. Yay, something cheerful! I love the harmonica on this.