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Results 1 - 7 of 7
1. Poets Talking About Poetry

Robert Frost (1875-1963) American Poet.
Poetryis finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses theuniversal, and history only the particular.

Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) Greek philosopher.
Poetryis not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not theexpression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, onlythose we have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape fromthese things.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) American-English poet andplaywright.
IfI feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that ispoetry.

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2. Easy A earns its A easily

Cheesy post title. I know. I couldn't help myself.

Know who's delightful in this movie? The entire cast. Seriously. And it is a cast of awesome, from Emma Stone as Olive to Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her parents to Dan Byrd as Brandon to Penn Badgley as the stable-yet-swoonworthy Todd (even though he seems too old to be in high school) to Thomas Haden Church as an awesome teacher and Lisa Kudrow as his awesomely awful (guidance counselor) wife. Amanda Bynes was obnoxious (a compliment - she was meant to be), Cam Gigandet was laughable (ditto), and Malcolm McDowell was rigidly out of touch (again, ditto).

The premise of Easy A is that good-girl Olive spins a story to impress her best friend, thus earning a reputation as a slut when it is overheard and spread before she can take it back. She knowingly and purposefully cements that reputation in order to help her friend Brandon escape daily torment because people think (rightly) that he is gay. The scene in which she and Brandon fake having sex (not a spoiler - it's in all the ads) is completely hilarious, and unless you've already seen the film, you have not seen or heard the funniest parts of that particular transaction.

The homage to the work of John Hughes was wonderful - and occurred on two levels. In many ways, this film is similar to a John Hughes movie, at the same time as Olive, the main character, pays direct tribute to Hughes's films, while metafictionally wishing her real life were more like a Hughes film. So. Great.

Even moreso than Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, this is a film for all writers and fans of YA literature. It is smart and funny and while there are some premises that strain credulity a bit - the behaviors of the principal and guidance counselor, for instance, and the huge amount of power weilded by an exceptionally small group of moralistic teens - Olive manages to feel very real. Emma Stone is warm and witty and spunky, as well as being a truly kind, caring character.

On top of the excellent storyline of the movie, the movie is full of excellent literary references, from the direct (Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and boy did I love how that reference worked out, and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne) to the indirect - including the nod to Forever and other books by the wonderful Judy Blume, which you can see in the trailer, and the reference you see below, which is a nod to The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot, an existential poem if ever there was one.


               T.S. Eliot allusion for the win!

For those of you not familiar with Eliot's poem, it deals with a couple key themes, including life in difficult times (he wrote it while living in Europe after World War I), possible marital infidelity, the passing of judgment (in the poem, judgment is passed on new souls by the inhabitants in the kingdoms of death), and questions involving religion, including a sort of condemnation on the worship of false gods (or the false worship of real gods). And yes - all those themes are in this really funny movie as well. I told you it was smart. The Hollow Men concludes with this (much-quoted) stanza, which is both a reference to the Gunpowder Plot involving Guy Fawkes and a fatalistic prediction for the future, which manages at the same time to echo "Here we go 'round the Mulberry Bush":

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
This movie does indeed go out with a bang, not a fizzle, and the ending is satisfying and endearing and sweet. The movie is probably going to be a (well-deserved) s

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

So yesterday, I posted Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress", in which I noted that the point of the poem was, well, "let's get it on." And in the "history of the poet" portion of the analysis, I noted that Marvell was a "poet's poet." In particular, he was a favorite of T.S. Eliot's, and that Eliot wrote an essay about Marvell, in which he specifically praised the structure of Marvell's "Coy Mistress", and, indeed, specific lines, including "Had we but world enough, and time" and "Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball". And those lines find an echo in one of my favorite of Eliot's poems, which I featured as recently as January of this year. But as a selection of my favorite poetry could not be complete without Eliot and, indeed, without this particular poem, here it is again, with bonus content in the discussion. Because, y'know, full-service blogger.

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

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
*


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
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

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

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,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

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

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all: —
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

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 that 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.


*If I thought my answer were given
to anyone who would ever return to the world,
this flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
without fear of infamy I answer you.
from Inferno by Dante



The short-form explanation of this poem is that the speaker, Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock, who lives in a London of the early 20th century polluted with sulfurous smog, is getting dressed to go to a party, where he will see a lady to whom he would like to declare his love. He talks to his reflection as he gets ready to go, projecting what his evening will be like in the rooms where "women come and go,/talking of Michelangelo." And he worries. What if the woman turns him down, or, worse yet, mocks him? Rather than face the possibility of rejection, he opts not to venture out at all. He stays in his rooms, facing a future full of regret wondering whether he dares to eat a peach, growing old and rolling his trousers at the bottoms. Poor guy.

Prufrock misses his chance to declare his feelings, and perhaps find real love, because he cannot bring himself to put himself out there. As one of my dearest friends once said, he's worried about both his emotional and perhaps also his literal impotence, as when he asks, "will I have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" He's a very careful man. You can tell this from the line, "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." A coffee spoon, for those of you who do not carefully pay attention to silverware, is significantly smaller than a teaspoon. He is a man who worries. What will people think of his appearance? The insect metaphor - that if he declares himself, he will be an insect, formulated (anesthetized) and pinned to the wall on display - is brilliant. How clinical, how horrible, to think of being a specimen pinned up for all to see and discuss, particularly these rooms full of women.

The poem specifically echoes some of the lines from Andrew Marvell's poem, "To His Coy Mistress". For instance, Eliot's use of "there will be time" is an echo of the opening of Marvell's poem: "Had we but world enough, and time". And these lines: "To have squeezed the universe into a ball/To roll it toward some overwhelming question," are an echo of Marvell's "Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball." Only Prufrock is not seizing his day, in the manner of Marvell's speaker, but is questioning whether it would have been worth venturing.

In addition to including a bit of homage to Marvell, this poem pays its due to another of Eliot's poetic "crushes" (if you will), the French poet Jules LaForgue. The repeated chorus in Prufrock ("In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo") is based on a line by LaForgue: "Dans la piece les femmes vont et viennent / En parlant des maîtres de Sienne."
("In the room the women come and go/Talking of the Siennese [painting] masters.") The poem refers as well to two separate Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night and Hamlet.

The poem is beautifully unified by quite a lot of end rhyme. It doesn't follow any obvious, fixed pattern, yet it is there, and by being there, the poem feels much like music when read aloud. In the end, I find myself feeling sorry for Prufrock and his missed opportunities. As I said in 2006, "the pity one feels for Prufrock is tempered by disdain for his decision not to act. Because it becomes clear that when we don't act, it's not just inertia (an object at rest remaining at rest). Because we are not objects, we are subjects -- we act (or choose not to). And so, for today, I will not measure out my day with a coffee spoon. I will not roll my trousers. I will go out into the day, and greet it. And I will hope it greets me back."

Today I add that I will dare to eat a peach, and hope to disturb the universe, at least a little bit. And you?

Kiva - loans that change lives

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4. The one paragraph recaps continue

A couple of friends had recently (well within the last couple of years!) read and enjoyed George Eliot’s Middlemarch, so I picked up a copy at a second hand book store and read it last month. Overall, I didn’t feel like the story justified the length, and it didn’t fly past as did, say, Anna Karenina (to choose another random long book I've read this year). However, it had many delightfully written scenes as well as insights into topics such as the position of women within marriage in 19th century England. The characters were believeable and memorable. It was slightly strange reading a book written a few decades after the time in which it was set – I felt that at times there was a faint sense of condescension in the writing tone. Overall I’m glad I finally got around to reading this book and am interested in reading more of Eliot’s work.

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5. Among School Children by William Butler Yeats

Yesterday, I posted a snippet form the old English carol, "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day". Today is the first day of National Poetry Month, and, as I did last year, I'll be presenting a poem a day, along with analysis, in a series I call Building a Poetry Collection. Each poem will be related in some way to the one from the day before. However, just as brainradio can be unpredictable in what song is playing in my head at any given time, so too are my associations a bit unusual from time to time.

Yesterday's carol has a first line the same as its title. Initially, I rather expected my brain my kick up a love poem, since I spent so much time singing the chorus, but I found this line coming to mind instead "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" It's the final line from today's poem selection, "Among School Children" by William Butler Yeats. A confession: I analyzed this poem here before, so the rest of the post is essentially a reprise of previous content. It is a lengthy post, but I hope you'll read it nevertheless

The set-up
Imagine that you're a sixty year-old Irish poet walking through a school in County Waterford back in 1926, because you happen to also be a member of a committee addressing schools. As you walk through, you'd carry with you your sixty years of life experience and education, including your training in the classics, such as the theories of Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoras. You'd also bring with you your recollection of school days, and might wonder if any of the girls in class resemble the woman you consider your soul-mate, believing as you do in a Platonic reality where every soul is split in two and housed in separate bodies, but which, when reunited, creates a sublime single entity. You might ponder the state of education. What the school (and teacher) looks like. Comparing your sixty year-old self to the young children there, you might think about how you were once a child, and that might make you think of your mother: was your life worth the pain of your birth? You might wonder whether there is meaning to life, after all, as you stand there at age sixty, looking at the exuberance of youth surrounding you.

And if you it truly were you, you'd be William Butler Yeats. And you would then go on to write a gorgeous poem about it. Of course, you'd use your own personal mythological associations, like references to Leda (once impregnated by Zeus, who took the form of a swan) as a stand-in for the woman you love. And in the end, you'd have an answer, contained in the following poem:

The poem, with a few interjections

The poem consists of eight stanzas, each containing eight lines, each written in iambic pentameter and with an end-rhyme scheme (per stanza) of ABABABCC, which is known as ottava rima.

Among School Children
by William Butler Yeats

I

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading - books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way - the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.


This first stanza is the set-up: where he is, what starts him musing.

II

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy -
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

Leda was a favorite topic of Yeats's. She was visited by Zeus in the form of a swan, and is the subject of Yeats's poem, "Leda and the Swan".

III

And thinking of th

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6. Choose Something Like a Star by Robert Frost

Following yesterday's poem selection, A Man Said to the Universe by Stephen Crane, I considered posting something from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that begins "A child said 'What is the grass?'", but it turns out I posted that as part of this series already, on April 2nd of last year. I toyed with posting a second Crane poem ("In the Desert"), but opted instead to go with a poem that - at least on its surface - addresses communication by a speaker on earth with a body out in space. It is a partial reprise of a post I did in January of 2009 about the dialogue between poets - in this case, Keats and Frost and, as you'll see, T.S. Eliot as well.

Choose Something Like a Star
by Robert Frost

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to the wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, 'I burn.'
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.
It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.


This 25-line poem is written in iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line), and uses a complicated nested rhyme scheme (AABAABCBDEDEFGGFGHIIHJKKJ), although one could fairly characterize the final eight lines as stanzas set in envelope rhyme. The starting 17 lines use a nested rhyme technique that is quite similar to what T.S. Eliot used in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", posted here previously, and rest assured, that is no coincidence.



Frost specifically references Keats's poem within his, both by addressing a star in the first place and by specifically talking about the steadfastness of the star and "Keats' Eremite". Were this poem to be performed on the stage, there'd be no fainting couch around, and the speaker would essentially be arguing with the star for a good 17 lines. Because it's not until the final 8 lines of this poem that Frost stops addressing the star directly. Yet there, at the start of the 18th line - "And steadfast as Keats' Eremite" - is a volta, where the poet stops hollering at the star and turns to his audience to address them directly.

Now, Frost's poem is actually quite lovely on its surface. It purports to be about a star in the night sky, and the speaker asks it questions, seeking answers, and the star tells us precious little about itself. "It says 'I burn'./But say with what degree of heat./Talk Fahrenheit. Talk Centigrade. Tell us what elements you blend." The speaker wants facts and specifics, something he can wrap his head around.

But, to quote Eliot's Prufrock, "That is not it at all,/That is not what [he] meant, at all." Frost, you see, told at least one of his classes that the "star" to which the poem is addressed was a contemporary star in the world of poetry: T.S. Eliot. Frost is being his usual cantankerous self, criticizing Eliot for his highbrow ways and for combining elements (Sanskrit, Hebrew, myt

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7. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Last week's Poetry Friday host, Karen Edmisten, posted the poem "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur, noting that she usually posts it about every four months. Today, I'm reposting one of my all-time favorite poems (I have many, so don't ask me to rank it), "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot.

I posted the poem once before, back in September of 2006, and I think it's worth posting again, particularly because it ties in with Praise Song for the Day from the inauguration the other day. How so, you ask? Well, on Wednesday evening, Elizabeth Alexander was a guest on The Colbert Report, and he quoted from Prufrock: "I hear the mermaids singing, each to each,/I do not think they will sing to me." You can check out the whole interview below, and, geek that I am, I transcribed the whole thing. Read the transcript, watch the interview, and read the analysis of the poem below.

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

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
*


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
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

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

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,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

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

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all: —
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
It is perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

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 that 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.


*If I thought my answer were given
to anyone who would ever return to the world,
this flame would stand still without moving any further.
But since never from this abyss
has anyone ever returned alive, if what I hear is true,
without fear of infamy I answer you.
from Inferno by Dante

Stephen Colbert interview with Elizabeth Alexander, Wednesday, January 21, 2009

SC: I have a general question about poetry. It's something that worries me. Poems aren't true, are they?

EA: Well. . .

SC: They're made up, right? Like, they're made up. 'Cause I recently read this thing called "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", which is about a guy in his mid-40s, like I am, and he's facing his mortality and he's got a sense that no matter what he's achieved in his life, he's never really gonna be great.

EA: Do you like that poem?

SC: That's not true, right? That's not true?

EA: It's not true in the sense that the newspaper is true, it's not true in the sense that journalism is . . .

SC: Well the newspaper is never true. Have you read the New York Times?

EA: Well, uh, meant to be true. It's not true in the sense of the strictly factual, but a poem should be in some way emotionally true, true to the language that it has, so that's why, for example, "J. Alfred Prufrock" might speak to you because there's something in the poem that resonates, that feels true to you, and that's how people connect with poems.

SC: He says that "I have heard the mermaids singing each to each, I do not think they sing to me". They're, are - They're still singing to me though, aren't they?

EA: (Laughs) They are, if you want them to be, but . . .

SC: Desperately.

EA: I know, I know, I know. But that's your experience with the poem, so the point is that phrase, that language, is . . . off enough, it is decentered enough from the way that you hear language every day that it makes you stop and think about what that could mean, so . . .

SC: Okay, let's talk about meaning for a second, let's talk about meaning for a second, okay? Okay. Metaphors, okay? What's the difference between a metaphor and a lie?

EA: Laughs

SC: Okay, because, you know, 'I AM THE SUN, YOU ARE THE MOON!' That's a lie, you're not the moon. I'm not the sun, okay? What's the difference between a metaphor and a lie?

EA: Well, that was both a metaphor and a lie. So, the two are not necessarily exclusive. A metaphor is a way of using language where you make a comparison to let people understand something as it relates to something else, and that's how we use the language to increase meaning.

SC: Well, why not just go, say, say what you mean, instead of dressing things up in all this flowery language like, you know, the great romantic poets, you know 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' Why not just say 'You are hot, let's do it'?

EA: Laughs

SC: 'Let's get it on! Okay? I got a mountain in my pants', and that is not a metaphor. That is not a lie!

EA: But that's a metaphor.

SC: No it's not. It's not, lady. It is not at all.

EA: (Laughs and fans herself)

SC: Now listen, listen. Let's go to your poem

EA: Line by line

SC: Beautiful, beautiful. But no 'explicate it line by line', no. The poem is "Praise Song for the Day". Let's talk about it. Is this a "praise song" for the day, or are we praising song for the day? Is praise there a command?

EA: No. It is a "praise song", which is a form of poetry, an ode if you will, that is often written in various West African countries, it's made its way here. It's a way of praising, not to say "gold star", "good job", but rather to name something that we take joy from, that we rejoice in, so that's what a praise song is. It's a form.

SC: And you called it "an occasional poem"

EA: Yes

SC: What is an occasional poem, is it a "sometimes" poem?

EA: An occasional poem is a poem written for an occasion. So obviously yesterday's occasion was the inaugural. It could be for a graduation, it could be for a wedding, any occasion.

SC: So its context is associated specifically to that event.
EA: Exactly.

SC: Like the lyrics to "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome"

EA: Well there you go.

SC: We don't need another hero. We don't need to know the way home. All we want is life beyond Thunderdome. It really only makes sense when you're at Thunderdome.

EA: And you see, that's a very good example of the occasional poem that actually doesn't resonate beyond the occasion. So if you look at those words, what you want to do is mark the occasion, but write words that will last afterwards, and be useful afterwards in some kind of way.

SC: Your poem was marked by, I would say, the commonality of experience that you were naming in it. Why not soaring rhetoric? Why not just light up the crowd with, you know, with one of your metaphor lies, like "Barack Obama is a blazing star of hope"? Why not that? Why not really, really gild him with these words?

EA: Well, I don't think he needs gilding, and I think that actually what's been so powerful about his campaign and now, hopefully, his presidency, is that even though he is the leader, it's about the people. It's about many people feeling invested in changing this country and looking to something better, and working for it. So, he said, "it's not about me, it's about us."

SC: If poetry is in some way about economy of language, could I suggest a poem that might have gotten to the heart of it a little quicker?

EA: (Nodding) Please, please do.

SC: Hickory dickory dock, we elected a guy named Barack. Think about it?

EA: I'm gonna think about it.









Explication and analysis here

The short-form explanation of this poem is that the speaker, Mr. J. Alfred Prufrock, who lives in a London of the early 20th century polluted with sulfurous smog, is getting dressed to go to a party, where he will see a lady to whom he would like to declare his love. He talks to his reflection as he gets ready to go, projecting what his evening will be like in the rooms where "women come and go,/talking of Michelangelo." And he worries. What if the woman turns him down, or, worse yet, mocks him? Rather than face the possibility of rejection, he opts not to venture out at all. He stays in his rooms, facing a future full of regret wondering whether he dares to eat a peach, growing old and rolling his trousers at the bottoms. Poor guy.

Prufrock misses his chance to declare his feelings, and perhaps find real love, because he cannot bring himself to put himself out there. As a good friend once pointed out, he's worried about both his emotional and perhaps also his literal impotence, as when he asks, "will I have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" He's a very careful man. You can tell this from the line, "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." A coffee spoon, for those of you who do not carefully pay attention to silverware, is significantly smaller than a teaspoon. He is a man who worries. What will people think of his appearance? The insect metaphor - that if he declares himself, he will be an insect, formulated (anesthetized) and pinned to the wall on display - is brilliant. How clinical, how horrible, to think of being a specimen pinned up for all to see and discuss.

The poem is beautifully unified by quite a lot of end rhyme. It doesn't follow any obvious, fixed pattern, yet it is there, and by being there, the poem feels much like music when read aloud. In the end, I find myself feeling sorry for Prufrock and his missed opportunities. As I said in 2006, "the pity one feels for Prufrock is tempered by disdain for his decision not to act. Because it becomes clear that when we don't act, it's not just inertia (an object at rest remaining at rest). Because we are not objects, we are subjects -- we act (or choose not to). And so, for today, I will not measure out my day with a coffee spoon. I will not roll my trousers. I will go out into the day, and greet it. And I will hope it greets me back."


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