Wednesday, April 16, 2008


The Book: T.S. Eliot, THE WASTE LAND AND OTHER POEMS. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich paperback reprint, 1962. Poor condition; pages 1-9 have come away from cover, text is marked up. Owner's signature on front flyleaf.
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.


Anonymous said...

I really loved "Grace of My Heart." A good hidden gem if anyone is looking for something they've missed that's worth a view.

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

Yah, I still remember the most of it, since there's so much good stuff in Prufrock. I do love the passage you cited, especially the second "almost" which uses simple language to reinforce his complicated posture towards life.

Did you ever think that his studied approach towards life is a wee bit like the Smiths on The Queen is Dead? I know this may seem a stretch, but passages of Prufrock sound to me a bit like There is a Light that Never Goes Out. The bit about if a double-decker bus should crash into us "well the pleasure--the privilege--is mine."

But you gotta also love Eliot's Four Quartets. I like these poems, and Prufrock, and Gerontium, and Hollow Men, more than The Waste Land.

Do you really think Grace of My Heart is that great? I like it but don't see it as more than a good music biopic cum Lifetime movie with great performance by Ilyana Douglas (her best work other than Action) with odd turns by Matt Dillion and John Turturro.

And I didn't really think of the song as a breakup song so much as a "My boyfriend/lover died and now I have to be strong" song. But it plays twice in the movie, right?

AnswerGirl said...

I love "Grace of My Heart." And yes, it's a breakup song:

I might as well
Wipe him from my memory
Fracture the spell
As he becomes my enemy

Maybe I was washed out
Like a lip-print on his shirt
See, I'm only human
I want him to hurt...

Tom Ehrenfeld said...

Okay, if its a breakup song (and you are right, of course, you are most certainly right I would never doubt...) and these are the lyrics, then isn't it kind of creepy that she sings it (a second time) about a boyfriend who killed himself?

Or am I misremembering the movie? Does it just play over the end credits?

AnswerGirl said...

I will have to watch the movie again and listen for changes in the lyrics, but I don't think it's at ALL inappropriate to be pissed as hell at someone who killed himself to get away from you.

Polly said...

Best poems of T.S. Elliot