Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Sad Poem, Yet a Beautiful One, Full of Mermaids and Soft October Nights

Okay, Everybody!

If there’s one thing you’ve learned from the du Jours, it’s this: There’s no reason to be afraid of poetry. It’s just words set down on paper in interesting patterns, right?

So you’re not going to be intimidated in the slightest by:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
by T. S. Eliot

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Okay, now have you read the poem all the way through? Or did you just skim lightly over it and skip down to the explication? If so, go right back and read the thing through. Don’t go on to the next paragraph until you have.

There. That didn’t hurt much, did it? You’re a little puzzled what the thing means, but it certainly sounded good. Well, it’s no wonder you didn’t find easy access to this one. It’s about a man who’s growing old and feels himself a failure. You guys are all young and on the way up, and if by chance you felt yourself as abject a failure as does Alfred J. Prufrock (and is that a failure-name or what? small wonder some humor writers later called their magazine’s mascot Alfred J. Newman), well... that would a remarkable sign of distinction in itself.

(A friend of mine who affects to dislike such poetry as pretentious, likes to say, “I don’t see what’s so difficult about eating a peach. I dare to eat a peach!” To which I can only reply, “And you think this is a sign of your own neurotic inadequacy, how?”)

So it’s a sad poem. And yet, a beautiful one, full of mermaids and soft October nights, carefully observed social details, and wonderful metaphors and similes. The sunset looking “like a patient etherised upon a table” is way over the top, and yet it captures perfectly that necrotic yellow color you get in late Autumn. (Wonderful word, necrotic. You should look it up.) Streets that follow “like a tedious argument of insidious intent” is just wonderful. The fog that curls around the house and falls asleep... Wow.

But I’m not going to explicate this poem for you. Why? Because Sean invited Ben into this list so the two of them could have something intellectual to discuss. So, Ben, this is my gift to you. This is, nobody doubts it, one of the great poems of English literature. There’s a lot to be snooped out of it. Have fun.

Jason and Ray -- you guys can discuss it, too, if you want. Or any combination of all of you. I won’t ask to see what you say. I appreciate how that would make you clam up. You’ve both looked up the Vermeer, right? Good.

All best,


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