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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (Eliot)

First half of Prufrock:
this is an audio post - click to play

Second half:
this is an audio post - click to play

Prufrock came up in a discussion in the comments of this post. So I figure I'll give reading it a shot (I can't do worse than the author — going by recordings I've heard, Eliot was a horrible reader). It's long though, so I had to do two audioposts to get it all. A couple of links to the text: this one (that site seems to have popups) has the best layout; while this one has some of the allusions in a scrollable frame beside the poem.

Whether you like or hate this poem, the damn thing can't be ignored. Like its author, it lurks in the shadows of 20th-century poetry with a snide little smirk on its face. Or is that a leer? You gotta be aware that it's in the corner of the room or it might just slip a knife in your back. It is fun to read aloud.


Jane L. said...

So, John . . . How does a poem's "fun-ness" to read aloud correspond to its "quality," power, effect, affect, etc.?

I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between the poem on the page and the poem in performance. What does the one tell you about the other?

MackJohnny said...

Always with the tough questions, Jane! I ain't even finished my first cup of coffee yet. Or my second smoke. I'm not sure that my brain's working well enough yet this morning to deal with general cases coherently, so I'll try to concentrate on Prufrock. [Please consider seven more excuses of dubious veracity and relevance to have been inserted here.]

Let's see. For me, Prufrock is fun to read aloud because of its rhythms, the length of its lines, its various kinds of repetitions; alliterations, assonances, rhymes, phrases and variations on those phrases. Also the darkness and irresolution that I sense in the poem, the round and round rhetoric of it, appeal to my particular sense of play. All these things just make the poem damn fun to say.

Technically, metrically, I think it's a perfectly controlled poem. Its rhetorical (in all senses) nature gives it its power, I think. Its effect and affect, I'd say, both come from its inherent sense of hopelessness and inevitability. I think the poem's quality is a result of all these things. I think (and this derives as well from reading other of Eliot's poems) that Eliot's deepest, most basic poetic influence was Ecclesiastes. I couldn't begin to say what his critical influences were.

I may be awake enough now to try to tackle the relationship between the poem on the page and the poem in performance, and what one might tell about the other.

It may be unanswerable because, to state the obvious, things of common ancestry often diverge.

It's commonly held, and may be true, that poetry and song, for instance, have their roots in the same soil. Yet what works as a song, with music behind and around it to flesh it out, often lies limply when read on its lonesome on the page. Something has developed there, whether it's a parasitic, or a symbiotic relationship, which requires melody and varying tonality for full effect. That's one path of divergence, and we call it song.

Other paths have led to rap, poems written mostly for how they look and read on the page, spoken word, and poems intended to be both read and heard. I don't think that one type is necessarily better than another, nor do I think that one type necessarily makes for better performance than another. I think the individual artists, their approach and committment to craft, have much more effect on the quality of a piece than does its type.

I do think that wellmade poetry of whatever variety, because it is necessarily made with words, and because our most basic relationship with words is through their sounds, is inherently performable. It is "simply" a matter of finding the most effective way of performing it.

Myself, I prefer poetry on the page so that I can hold more of it in my mind at once.

I do know that a great reading can make a poor poem seem better, and that a poor reading can make a good poem seem worse. As a listener, I have to concentrate hard to absorb meaning as well as sound.

Meaning of words, I mean, not necessarily of the poem as a whole, because it is individual meanings of words, as well as their combinations, that drive images and metaphors which are things that don't require the full complement of tools in the traditionally melodically biased metrical and "technical" portions of a poet's toolkit.

In other words, to me, poetry is to a great degree "affect." And meaning focused through imagery and metaphor which use sound mostly as a convenient vehicle can achieve that "affect" just as well as can melodically focused sound which carries meaning as a passenger or navigator.

Sufficiently ambiguous for you? I sure can ramble on.

jane l. said...

Cool. I admit to a reluctant love of Prufrock and appreciation for its metrical and structural intricacy. (I wonder how much of this to attribute to Pound -- but the writer/editor relationship is a discussion for another post.)

Your perceptions run along similar lines to my own thinking. Certainly, my (limited) experience with writing songs felt like a different craft. It followed a whole other set of rules and generic conventions, leading to a different kind of more constrained, more regularized lyricism from what I might write as a lyric poem. There are stories that are easier to tell in song, and I think there are both "tricks" that play into songwriting (though they might be called "hooks") that run in a familiar vein and become a kind of shorthand for an affect or emotion.

These exist in the poetry genre as well, of course. In your own work, the images of "bones" and "teeth," for instance, reference a huge range of symbolic association that you as a writer share with readers who similarly love poetry.

Back to performance, though: I want to think about aspects of performance that allow listeners to access layers of meaning -- the ambiguous, difficult, "poetic" parts of poems -- but that break out of conventions around the presentation of poetry. Part of the "shorthand" for conveying affect in poetry readings is a conventional reading voice (that you've spoken of on this blog before). The inflections of this poetry voice distract me from both content and the natural rhythms of spoken language.

Now *I'm* rambling. But here's a question that has gripped me and that I will share: Have we lost the connection among text, performance, and *memory* by forgetting to memorize poems for recitation? It used to be that people regularly in school and elsewhere took parts of poems into themselves, into their memories, and their spoken language reflected its rhythms (and vice versa). Perhaps this connection comes up for me because there are large passages of "Prufrock" that I have memorized, and it lends itself so much to memorization. . . .

MackJohnny said...

I think I'd characterize the conventional reading voice you mention as being afflicted with an inability to inflict more than two specific inflections upon any poem, or word in a poem.

It's a very limited range of stress that puts me right round the bend. Which is one of the reasons I have to concentrate on the meanings of words in poems, rather than their sound as inflicted by the speaker.

Speaking for myself, I think that having memorized poems in my life gives me an approach to reading poems, or anything, aloud that enhances that reading. But I don't think that we have to memorize every poem in order to perform it well. At least not complete memorization. Some familiarity with the poem, a few trial runs with it, help immensely.

When I look at a poem with a thought to performing it, I try it out to see how it fits my voice; to see if there's a natural rhythm that desires or requires. If not, I attempt a version of my natural speaking voice and its rhythms to see how that goes.

In the end, I usually find that I can create or discover a tension between whatever rhythm or rhythms are inherent to the poem and whatever rhythms and inflections exist in my natural speaking voice, a tension that is generally effective in performance. Also, I think that a big part of the process of discovering those rhythms and tensions and executing the performance lies in playing close attention to what images, metaphors, phrases etc mean to me, and letting that meaning drive my inflections.

Humble Servant said...

Aw, man, you didn't do the Italian!

I like Prufrock, no reluctance here. I like the self-awareness, the ackowledgement of folly (the second link says it's an "inferiority complex"--ha! Eliot may admit inherent weakness but he's not saying he's inferior!). He's got words that make the self-loathing real, not just a false modesty: malingers, wriggling, scuttling, snicker. Oh, and he is only "almost, at times" a fool. Bravo!

MackJohnny said...

I tried the Italian on for size. My tongue and it seem to be mismatched. So instead of doing injury to one or both, I passed.

Yep, "almost." Stubborn and annoying both, that man. (Reminds me of someone I know -- heh, think I'll go to work now and fold my arms and almost glare at people.)

Anonymous said...

Zed said...

Jane, I wonder to what extent we no longer memorize poems. True, it's not as big a part of school curricula nowadays, but I think in part at least it's also due to the fact that poems stripped of rhyme and metre (or even some more or less consistent irregular structures of soundplay and rhythm) resist memorization. A poem like Prufrock, both because of its structure and because it insists we re-read it (both of these factors are related, I think) lends itself to accidental memorization, at least in parts. The Wasteland, for all its nonlinear fragmentation, is like this too. It's part and parcel of Eliot's prosodic theory that the ghost of an old meter should be audible beneath even the freest of verse. Prosodists have had a field day picking embedded metrical patterns out of Whitman's long lines and even Melville's prose (he was a poet-novelist avant la lettre Canadienne) and W.C. Williams' red wheelbarrow poem (if you rebreak the lines, it's two lines of blank verse). But a lot (probably most) of the heirs to the major free verse innovators have, instead of tweaking and torquing patterns, started from a position of orthodox opposition to patterning per se, which I think is a wrong turn into a dead end. Their verse is impoverished as a result, does not demand re-reading and resists memorization.

Jane said...

Cool discussion. Which leads me to more questions, of course . . . Is there value in memorizing poems which resist memorization? Is there a chance we might find something new in them that way? Is there an increased chance they will become part of something new in the future?

MackJohnny said...

Strangely, I can't remember any poems that resist memorization.

In all seriousness, though, can you give an example.

Anonymous said...

Zed said...

My father didn't spend very much free time
on the big ground floor of our house in St. Mary's.
A study
upstairs where he wrote fine Greek notes in the margins of books
& a workroom. Fresh shavings, planes & levels, across the hall.
Sometimes he would sit outside in a wood & canvas lawn-chair
and read.
To me at 4 1/2 it must have seemed
as if he was walking through blue air in a Grimm myth,
sitting outside the Gare Centrale in Paris. Someone who was
very present but whom you could never speak to.
comfortable. Neat
in a well-cut gey tweed suit, glancing
at his watch occasionally, & flipping
browsing through a new translation of Thucydides.


That, friends, is a poem that resists memorization by anything but a camera. I expect the format of the line breaks is gonna get screwed up once I post this, but it hardly matters. Its author is a former winner of the GG for poetry. I've pulled the poem at random; never been able to read the whole book (David Donnell's Water Stree Days, but this sample seems to be representative of what he's got on offer.

Jane, I don't think there's much value in memorizing poems like this, no, except maybe in the way that daily doses of cod liver oil and other unpleasantries are supposed to be good for you. Rather, best to do what they insist we do: forget them. Poem and song have diverged in their evolution, yes, but a poem I think has to have some kind of music (even more than a song, which can lean on accompaniment) to work. Not to say that I've never seen a good poem in a stripped bare mode, but they seem to be much much harder to pull off.

Tracy Hamon said...

Eliot on the page can be daunting but your spoken version was modern, subtle and wonderfully accessible. Thanks.

MackJohnny said...

Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.