How I discovered Prufrock

In 2005 I did an internship in Birmingham England at a church down the road from Cadbury chocolate factory. I was there for two months working with youth and traveling a bit with my team. It was a great experience that I cherish.

One day I was in the large old home of an older man who hosted the youth pastor who served this church. My team would meet there with some regularity to enjoy some great British hospitality and to reflect on all that we were learning. One day after we had met at the end of a long day, we had some free time before we ate dinner. I went into a small room that had a lot of books in it and sat in what I remember being the only chair in the room. There was a stack of books on the floor and right on top was a selected collection of T. S. Elliot poems. I picked it up and just started reading through it. I knew a little of Elliot but not a lot. I knew his “Wasteland” was a monster poem that I had heard my English professor wrangle on about at some point. Eventually I found a poem I thought was either titled strangely, or so cleverly I was too dumb to understand it. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” What is this? I read. I began to like it right away, but only because I enjoyed the rhythm and rhyme, not so much because I understood everything that was happening. When I got to the end, there was some sort of satisfying melancholy to it. I remember thinking that this was art that was beyond me, yet so well done I could feel it’s affects even without comprehending why.

The next year I returned to England for the same internship again. This time I met a friend from home who was visiting someone in Bristol. I took a day to go say hello and discovered this Bristolian had done their Master’s thesis on Elliot. I began to question incessantly. What does Prufrock mean? They weren’t entirely sure either, but they gave me a lot of context that I found helpful. Since then I’ve read an analysis here and there, and have come to appreciate the poem more with age. I hope to return to this topic with some commentary in the future, but I didn’t want to weigh down anyone who might happen to have their first experience with it here under the paralysis of analysis. Read it and see what you think. Also, for some magnificent reason, Anthony Hopkins has been recorded reading it so listen along as you read through and see how you walk away from the experience. Sometime later I’ll return with more thoughts.

 

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized 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!)
Is it 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, 90
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.

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Ranking the books I’ve read this year.

reading

Last year I started tracking my reading goals, successes and failures with a couple of friends using Goodreads. I set the not so lofty goal of reading two books a month, but moving across the world and starting a new career cut me pretty far short of my goal. I sought to set a more modest goal this year and I know I’ll meet it. One book a month is really nothing. I’d love to get to a book a week, and I’d love to write more as I’ve stated not too long ago. I know some people who read 100 books a year. I’m jealous. It’s going to take some real commitment or becoming a full time student again to get to that point I think.

While I enjoyed most of the books, only the last one in the ranking ended up being a real disappointment. So here’s my ranking with brief explanations.

1. Story by Robert McKee

I really enjoyed this book. I had been wanting to read it for a long time because I want to know more about screenwriting and what the methods were behind really good stories on film and TV. I was not disappointed. It’s very straightforward and technical but also fun, because the subject matter is always interesting. Even though it takes a lot of practice to get good at it, everyone can relate to the innate sense of knowing when a story is good or bad, and this book gets a little in to the details of why that is, and how to harness that for your own writing. It’s specific to screenwriting, though many principles will be applicable to any writing I believe. A big book, but a lot of fun if you like film and/or stories.

2. iWoz by Steve Wozniak

I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. Having read two other books connected with the legacy of Steve Jobs before this, I just wanted a bit more perspective on the personalities behind the Apple phenomenon. But what I found in Wozniak was a relatable guy caught up in a world of power. I felt a lot more pathos from his account than I planned to. Having worked in tech and seeing how poor relationships can be in any organization, especially with a lot of youth and ego, I found Woz to be a bit of a mentor while much of the world tries to emulate Jobs. Woz was a good friend. Every time I read a book on Jobs or watch a documentary, I’m impressed just like everyone else, but I wouldn’t want to work with or for him. When I read about Woz I feel like he’d be an incredible guy to work with or for. His version of events is much more emotional and lighthearted, and I really appreciated his wisdom.

3. Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Barth is theological force to be reckoned with. This book of his though, is very accessible. He definitely deals with deeper theological issues, but this short 150 page book was derived from lectures he gave to lay leaders in German churches. If this were the only thing he’d written I don’t think there would be much controversy regarding him. But he went on to write much, including his massive “Church Domatics,” which perhaps I’ll read one day. As an introduction into his thought, I really enjoyed this quick little read, and I found it helpful for the same kind of people today he was speaking to then, lay church leaders.

4. The Forgotten Ways by Alan Hirsch

Alan Hirsch is one of the most popular authors and speakers of the missional church movement, and this was his breakout book. I had read bits and pieces of his books for years but I wanted to finally finish this one, and I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it a lot, but I do have a growing concern that the missional church movement has become excessively works oriented and tribal. There’s an entire subculture of missional churches now that have a language not shared with much of the Christian world, and rituals and practices that wouldn’t be recognized by much of the global church, including places like China, which Hirsch references a lot, where the church is growing rapidly while under oppression. I fear this is becoming a trendy way to do church for white hipster evangelicals more than anything else. That’s not a bad thing, because the goal is good, but I think there is a sanctioning of sub-cultural lingo and practice that is used as a judgment of spiritual character, when those things are best left on the spectrum of possible appropriate adaptations to cultural contexts. All that said, it’s a good read with good challenges to an all to stagnant western church.

5. What to Expect when No One’s Expecting by Jonathan Last

I was just curious about this one after seeing it on a reading list by Pastor Tim Keller. It ended up being a fascinating look into the issue of fertility around the world, and particularly in America. The primary concern of the book is the impact of various sociological forces that lead to many things, one of them primarily being a dearth or growth of baby making, and what it tells us about the American political environment. In many ways it’s a timely read for an election year such as this. I don’t know enough about demographics and sociology to critique anything Last says, but that being said, I really enjoyed reading it, and I want to read more books like it in the future.

6. Clowning in Rome by Henri Nouwen

Nouwen was a prolific Catholic writer for many years, particularly in the genre of spiritual formation. This book is a collection of lectures he gave in Rome to a group of clergy people. He took his cues from the clowns around Rome who he viewed on the periphery of society, very humble, yet whose live’s entire purpose was to bring a smile to people on the periphery. That’s the major theme, the clownishness of the Christian life as a way of standing against the worldly powers. It’s an interesting and humble read, and I felt humbled by reading it. Nothing too heady, just a reminder that we’re all clowns, and to do the best with that we can. Who can’t use that reminder from time to time?

7. Out of Solitude by Henri Nouwen

Another short one by Nouwen just focused on solitude. It was yet again a very simple reminder, this time on the importance of being alone as a spiritual discipline. In a noisy world, it’s certainly a hard practice to cultivate, but his wisdom was a welcomed reminder to put up that fight for the sake of spiritual health.

8. The Starfish and The Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom

I had been aware of this book for the better part of a decade before finally getting around to reading it. It’s on decentralization in organizations and movements, with a lot of case studies from history to modern times. In many ways it is a secular version of the Forgotten Ways, Hirsch even sites it in the book. It’s a helpful book on the power of culture and ideas, and how when those are the things that unite people for a long period of time, the staying power is enormous. The title captures the idea well, if you cut the leg off a starfish, another starfish is born, but if you get the head off a spider it dies. It’s pretty much that simple, but requires a lot to make it apart of your organizational culture.

9. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

I enjoyed this book, but it was just too long. There is a lot of narrative about how much leisure time the author as an awesome scholar had to run all his thought experiments, when he should have dived into the fruit of that labor a lot more quickly. Even so, the fruit of his labor is very fascinating, and quite helpful to me as a teacher. Basically his research highlighted how powerful human instinct is, fast thinking, and how we don’t really appreciate that enough. However, it needs to be reigned in under the discipline of slow thinking, and careful reasoning. The real key is developing the skills associated with how to switch back and forth depending on the context. A very interesting if not overly long read.

10. A Life of Jesus by Shusaku Endo

I read this book for two reasons. One was that it’s a popular book from a Japanese author about Jesus. This is significant for many reasons. One being that Japan is less than 1% Christian. This book is older now, but Endo wrote it as a help to Japanese people to understand and empathize with Jesus from their cultural perspective, so I really read it for that insight. I’m quite familiar with the life of Jesus, but living in Korea, I don’t know enough about what Korean culture specifically, or Asian culture more generally, find most appealing about him. I know it’s different from the West in at least some ways. I wanted Endo to shed whatever light he could on that cultural note in his telling. Secondly, I wanted to read this because another book he wrote, “Silence,” about Jesuit missionaries being persecuted in Japan a long time ago, is being made into a movie by Martin Scorsese soon, staring Liam Neeson. So I wanted to see what this guy had to say about Jesus. The reason I came away disappointed is because he was heavily under the influence of German higher criticism. He quoted Bultmann a lot, as well as other mid-century German textual critics of the Bible. In the end, he didn’t believe in a real resurrection of Christ, but instead a very humanistic interpretation I’ve read in other liberal theology, that Jesus’ legacy rose in the lives of his followers such that it lived in them, and in that way, he was resurrected. Along the way, I didn’t feel like I gleaned much cultural insight from him either, so I left feeling pretty disappointed and sad. If he’s one of the few Japanese authors who wrote about Jesus, I can’t be surprised Jesus isn’t a bigger deal there. I have several friends who are missionaries in Japan, and I pray that they will lovingly teach and correct this where it is found.