I used to have it memorized. Or, at least, I tried.
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky,
Like a patient…..etherized upon a table?”
I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a painfully romantic old bookshop in Europe, an impressionable young reader dreaming, like many, of the world within the words. I thought knowing The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock by heart would catapult me into the realms of the elite. I could be that gal at the fancy party who quoted Eliot while circling champagne around a crystal glass, writhing in my infinite pain and intellect. All I had to do was figure out what he was trying to say.
The old bookshop had that smell you read about, the one that I imagined T.S. Eliot’s house smelled of – old books and ink, cigar smoke? It was easier to envision in Europe, where even the street lamps were charming. But I couldn’t remember the word “etherized” because I didn’t really know what it meant, and I barley understood the very idea of poetry. All I had was a love of the way the words sounded together. Prufrock is about as ubiquitous as a poem can get, a regular Citizen Kane of the poetry world. But I didn’t know any of that, I’d never even seen Citizen Kane. I simply loved that this poem was a lovesong. And what teenager isn’t attracted to the idea of a lovesong? I’d been listening to them my whole life – sure, at that point they were mostly sung by a band of five dancing boys I was fatally attracted to, but the romance was there…it’s good to be young.
Eventually, I figured out a bit of what Eliot was trying to say. Only then did I began to contemplate the bleak existence captured in the words I had failed to memorize. I started to understand, as a developing adult, the way the world could swallow you whole if you let it. Drinking a cocktail of insecurity and fear is easy to do if you’re not careful. Prufrock wasn’t a lovesong at all. His was a cautionary tale.
I keep an old copy of The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock on the record player in my living room as a reminder of what could come if I’m not careful. Sometimes, I stare longingly at it’s yellowed pages as I swirl cheap champagne around a plastic glass, daydreaming about the girl who sat cross-legged on the floor of that old bookshop, one who may have lived a different life. And then I snap out of it. While Prufrock remains lost in his indecisions and revisions, I choose not to linger. I allow the lovesong I sing to myself to evolve, and it’s okay if it sounds more like a song sung by a boy band rather than a Nobel Prize winning poet.