Prufrock (The Love Song of J. Alfred) is the first poem in English I remember reading. I can’t pinpoint the exact day, but it was sometime in January or early February, 1984, shortly after my 11th grade class, taught by Mrs. Davis at Ed White High School, Jacksonville, Florida, reconvened after the winter break.
I had at that point spoken English for about three years and eight months, having come from Cuba in May, 1980, during the Mariel Boat Lift. By 1984, I could read and write English fluently, but my vocabulary and cultural knowledge were limited. And I could speak English ok, although with a slight accent I still have (some say once you turn 13 or 14, you can’t speak another language with the fluidity of a native speaker; at least in my case, this has proven true).
So riddle me this: how did a poem written by an American in his 20’s nearly seventy years earlier resonate so much with a 17-year old immigrant Cuban kid barely fluent in English that the moment I first encountered the poem has stayed with me all these years?
I didn’t think the poem was difficult; I knew enough about reading to skip over hard parts and try to make sense of things in context. Actually, the poem made perfect sense to me: the speaker was unhappy; things hadn’t turned out the way he expected; he was disappointed but had no real reason for his disappointment, and so he cast his eye around for possible reasons, ending up with a laundry list of melancholias (I didn’t use that word then).
“He is lonely,” I said to Mrs. Davis during class discussion. “He doesn’t really belong anywhere, and he doesn’t like himself. I think he wants a girlfriend.”
Mrs. Davis pointed out there was more to it than that. Maybe.
My favorite lines are still the closing, though the opening lines are phenomenal. But the poem found a permanent place in my consciousness here:
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
Something in that sense of loss, of becoming aware of your small place in the universe, of the limitations of the myths and dreams that have sustained your life heretofore but which are no longer enough to sustain you … well, you get the picture.
What I had done without even realizing it was put myself in the place of the speaker. I had basically described myself to Mrs. Davis. I had read into Eliot’s words the experience of my own life.
The poem struck me not because it was about me, written in my vernacular, or with my MTV generation in mind, but because it allowed me to place myself in it. There was room in Prufrock for me, and I stepped in.
I didn’t understand all of the poem. I had no idea yet what a modernist was, or the effect the first three lines had had on Anglo-American poetry. But I didn’t have to.
I knew enough about Prufrock, the character, to nod my head and say, “I get it.”
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)