Monday, April 30, 2007

It is Impossible to Say Just What I Mean

Goodbye, Poetry Month!

To usher out the month --
-- Love Song of Alfred Prufrock is one of my favorite poems of all time. I was just rereading it in the car today. My husband needed a root canal so I coming with him so I could drive him back (it is a 50 mile trip).

The poem is too long to paste on here in its entirety. My father loved this part and used to declaim it often:

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

He also liked this one:

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

So when I read Prufrock in college I felt I already knew the poem a bit from this childhood association. I have read the poem many times since then; each time getting something different out of it. Even the ellipses and pauses speak, elegiacally.

Today I particularly noticed this part -- I didn't remember when I quoted Eliot in my post about Hamlet that he actually mentions Hamlet in this poem:

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.

The Wine-Dark Sea has a quote from an article about TS Eliot (the whole thing is here) :

Think of the world as divided between things easily labelled and things just barely describable. Civilians work with the easily labelled things, but when something just barely describable confronts us, we call in the language marines: poets. But then, out beyond that, there’s Eliot and the type of poetry he represents. It’s another step beyond. It agrees that special tactics need to be applied to the nearly-unspeakable. Eliot argued that, given the way the twentieth century was turning out, “it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it appears at present, must be difficult.” Why?

Because in a complex world, “the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”


lissla lissar said...

Or, as Eliot said,
"So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."
-East Coker, The Four Quartets

I love Eliot. I especially love the last lines- "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

Willa said...

That's great. Thanks so much for commenting! This is beautiful: "a raid on the inarticulate." I love those last lines too -- reminds me a bit of Mother Teresa's "I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness."

momof3feistykids said...

I love Prufrock too. :-)

lissla lissar said...

You're welcome. :D I just love Eliot.

melanieb said...

Yay! More Eliot fans! He's my favorite poet and that's saying a lot.

Margaret in Minnesota said...

Chiming in with one more vote for Eliot. Prufrock is one of my favorite poems of all time.