My favorite poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," turns 100 this month. I first read T.S. Eliot in the spring of 2004 (my second semester at Northern Michigan University) and recall that I did not think much of him until Austin Hummell, subbing for Mark Smith (the instructor of record), invited the class to follow along as we read through "Prufrock" aloud. Professor Hummell's enthusiasm for the poem—or perhaps just his excitement at getting to teach it—managed what I so often fail to do with my own students: it made me interested. Interested in Eliot's similes ("Like a patient etherized upon a table"?). In his imagery ("yellow smoke"? "sprawling on a pin"? "a magic lantern"?). In the poem's utter sadness ("I do not think that they will sing to me"). Its allusiveness ("S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse..."; "I am no prophet"; "I am not Prince Hamlet"). Its irregular rhythms and rhymes. Its texture and sound. Its obscure, difficult intimacy—like a meeting between "you and I" on "half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights."
I remained interested in Eliot over the following months, purchasing a used copy of The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 from a used bookstore (Frigate Books, now closed) in my hometown of Gladstone, MI. It was December 2004, and my wife and I had just announced we were separating a week or so earlier. It was a hard time for me (for us); we were both young and unhappy. I was an angry young man, unable to admit my unhappiness or my problem with anger. Although our divorce was the best thing that ever happened to us, I spent a long time with Eliot's "Love Song" in the early months of 2005, identifying with the isolation and disappointment and lateness of the poem's speaker. I carried The Complete Poems and Plays with me everywhere: to classes, parties, study sessions, restaurants. I read it everywhere, even as I walked from place to place, and accidentally memorized this particular poem. "Prufrock" eventually became much more than an exercise in self-pity; it became a kind of mental therapy. A mental and physical exercise, an interweaving of my body's movment with the movement of the lines: their breaks, their enjambments, their punctuated and non-punctuated pauses. The poem also became an odd sort of measurement (how many "Prufrocks" will it take to walk there? here?). A talisman. A performance. A lure to bond or argue with other readers.
Eleven years, three degrees, and a thousand miles later—and still with my life-partner of eight years, who heard me recite "Prufrock" on the first day we met—the 131-line poem is so fantastically and soul-crushingly alive to me. I don't think I'll ever be able to read it, recite it, or teach it enough. (Though perhaps those closest to me are getting tired of hearing it!) Here's a recording of "Prufrock" in Eliot's infamous voice:
And here's my response: