Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Most Influential Poem of the 20th Century

(This is another is a series of articles I wrote for The Master’s Artist.)

In Woody Allen’s movie Midnight in Paris, writer Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson) desperately wants to live in Paris of the 1920s, the city and time of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Cole Porter and Josephine Baker. And he gets his wish, if only for a few hours each night at midnight. In one scene, he climbs into a taxi and finds T.S. Eliot, and he says that “Prufrock” is like his mantra, but where he comes from in Hollywood, people measure out their lives in coke spoons, not coffee spoons.

If you don’t know the poem, you miss the reference. In the poem, Eliot wrote, “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.”

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in Poetry Magazine in 1915, when Eliot was all of 27, and it is still considered by many critics and scholars to be the most influential poem of the 20th century. It’s difficult to imagine any poem today having the kind of impact that “Prufrock” did. Published by Poetry with the urging of Ezra Pound, the poem played a major role in shaping and defining Modernism in poetry and literature generally.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

The poem is longish, unfolding a series of scenes that seem unrelated. Scholars still argue about the subject and meaning of the poem, but it is clearly a poem about the disconnectedness of modern society and man’s disconnected place within that society. In that sense, it is as contemporary today as it was in 1915.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains…

Eliot uses a combination of rhyme, free verse and repetition. The reader happens upon the rhyme but is soon swept away from it, only to return suddenly to it. There’s nothing predictable here, no planet in its orbit or star in its galaxy. But there are delightful lines, including some of the most famous in 20th century poetry:

   In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

When I was in high school, Eliot’s poetry always posed a problem – should it be taught in American literature (junior year) or English literature (senior year)? My school solved the problem by teaching Eliot in both years. In American literature, we learned “The Hollow Men” – This is the way the world ends, / Not with a bang but a whimper. In senior year, it was “Prufrock” and the poems published as Four Quartets. (I still have the paperback edition of Four Quartets published for 95 cents in 1968; underlined in many places with margin notes in my own handwriting.)

“Prufrock” was written more than two decades before Eliot embraced the Christian faith. And yet the sense of a broken world and broken people permeate it. In an odd way, to read it now is to see the poem anticipating the intellectual and spiritual frame of mind of the poet that would eventually lead the poet to faith.

Eliot might smile at that. Despite all of the scholarly hubbub about the themes and meanings of his poems, all he himself said was that he simply wanted people to read his poetry.

There are various recordings of Eliot reading the poem, and you can find these at YouTube, but one of the best I’ve come across is the reading by Spoken Verse, which allows you to follow the words as they are read.

Photograph by Vince Mig via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


JofIndia said...

I first came across this poem as a young teenager at Grammar School. It was in the text book we were using for English Literature but was not one of the poems we ever studied.

I fell in love with it at first reading and my feelings have never changed...

Martha Jane Orlando said...

What an amazing work! I remember in college writing a paper on "Murder in the Cathedral." Man! What an amazing writer T. S. Eliot was!
Great post, Glynn!

Jerry said...

Prufock has stuck to me and comes up in random places. Just the other day I said "Do I dare to each a peach?" and my children got excited because they thought I brought home peaches from the market. When I am old I will wear my trousers rolled. Thanks Glynn!