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.

The Golden Age of Television

Today is the first day I haven’t felt like writing since I started trying to blog everyday. But it marks the last day of the week since I started so I have to do it, I just have to. We had a sizable earthquake in Korea last week, followed by a typhoon, and last night we had a sizable aftershock and high winds. I live pretty high up in an apartment complex so I didn’t get much sleep what with all the blowing and shaking and clicking my heals chanting, “there’s no place like home.” But I survived, I’m the boy who lived, so I fight on for another day. And what better to talk about after a sleepless night pondering death than the golden age of TV?

I kept hearing the term, “Golden Age,” applied to TV over the last decade or so before I really started watching it very much. I was in a culture vacuum while in Bible college in the mid 2000’s. I saw plenty of movies, but it wasn’t a golden age of movies at that time, nor now. All the while Sopranos was wrapping up, as was The Wire, and a host of other shows that became known as the harbingers of this new golden TV era. Once in seminary, my housemates and I started borrowing DVD’s, even from the library (which feels weird to think of now), and we watched Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Lost, and the beginning of Son’s of Anarchy while we got our masters degrees in theology and started a church in our house. It was an interesting way to get introduced to this Golden Era. We had all grown up on standard sitcom television, and this new kind of TV, the kind with regular international instant cult classics being the norm (basically the definition used by wikipedia for this era), was something we were seeing after it was well underway. Like so many things in American Evangelical subculture, we were late to the larger cultural waves in both participation and understanding. While an increase in production of this caliber was interesting to me, and to my friends, what really stuck with us was the way TV was becoming a mythology machine for a globalized America, to such an extent that it was becoming the sacred space in American culture. The news media was losing favor and has continued to do so ever since. Politics, already nobody’s favorite source of American culture creation and appropriation, has continued down the stream of actual culture production such that it’s now just the last place at the receiving end, a thermometer verifying what’s wrong and not a virus. Every sociological survey on the matter is highlighting the ongoing waning influence of churches in America, evangelical or otherwise. And movies had already started to just remake themselves over and over. There have been some good ones, but nobody is saying it’s a golden age of film.

However, TV has become one of the primary places where American culture does it’s thinking, reflecting and hypothesizing. It’s become high literature in many ways. There’s an intertextuality in the storytelling that has actually changed the way film franchises work as well. I’m not saying all of this should be the way it is, just that it appears to be the case. I hope to spend more time in the details of this in the future, but for now here’s a first glance into my reflections on the golden age of TV, and why I think it’s an important reality for thoughtful minds to consider, because more than nearly any other platform, TV has become America’s pulpit. What is it saying?

The film I’m most looking forward to right now is Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan

First of all, I’m a sucker for a great trailer. By great I mean it builds anticipation without giving too much away, yet reveals enough tone to give you the feel for the kind of movie it is, all the while leaving you hanging and wanting more. A well constructed trailer is a work of art by itself these days. That being said, just look at this…

There’s really only one thing I don’t like about this trailer, and that’s that it reminds us of what other movies Christopher Nolan has made instead of focusing on this amazing story from World War II and the seemingly incredible way that Nolan intends to portray it. I don’t think it’s important to remind the world that the director is amazing, there’s enough going for this film as it is. Also, I think by now people know who he is. I know it’s normal to include information like that, but it felt too low end marketing oriented and unnecessary to me.

There hasn’t been a good historical World War II film in a while. In my opinion, Fury was kind of a bust aside from the tank scene when the sherman took out the panzer. Unbroken was more about the main character than the war itself (good movie, just less WWII, more Louis Zamperini). Furthermore, this is from an entirely European perspective in an entirely European situation. America was not involved in this fight. The Germans almost got a conditional surrender of war from the British in this moment. Just stop and try to imagine that. 1940, and England has surrendered to Nazi Germany….. This moment was huge. 400,000 British troops surrounded by German forces. Now separated from allied French, Belgian and Dutch forces. Germany, with 800,000 troops, calls what was at the time a mysterious halt to regroup in preparation to make the most of this moment. In the two days of that halt, England evacuates some 300,000 men, living to fight for another day, but losing mainland Europe in a devastating way after some serious miscalculation as to how far and how quickly Germany was working.

Anyone could make this film and the story is interesting. It’s a studio or director’s prize story to lose to poor execution. But it’s not any director. It’s Nolan, one of the greatest directors of all time making his first foray into historical drama. Why this story and why now? I don’t know for sure. But I do know, with the world we live in now, divided, post Brexit, in a Hillary or Trump America when it comes out in 2017, this film about harrowing courage, terrible situations, close calls and quick decisions stands as a bold reminder of just how bad things can get. He’s going to make a great film, and it’s going to give this historical moment a platform to preach to our modern times, and I think it will be up to a watching world to learn it’s lesson or ignore it. Apparently we need movies now, because history class isn’t doing the trick.

The trailer made it clear that this film will be shot with incredible blocking and framing. Each scene shown in it is clearly a careful construction. Two things come to mind. The first is Nolan’s entire filmography and how he tells a story. I think this video below where the Nerdwriter analyzes Nolan’s “The Prestige” is perhaps the best analysis of Nolan’s storytelling style. I would give it a watch and imagine this style as applied to a WWII battle, and then specifically to the Dunkirk battle.

Below is a video essay by “Every Frame a Painting” talking about one of the greatest directors of all time, Akira Kurosawa. Once you watch this video, if you are perceptive about film, you will begin to see Kurosawa’s influence everywhere. But after you watch this essay, look again at the Dunkirk trailer. Once your eye has been trained to notice how movement is utilized in Kurosawa’s style, notice the similarities you can already see in the trailer. I don’t know what that will mean for the entire movie. I can’t see Nolan using all the exaggerated expressions all the time, or giving every character some kind of tick to characterize them through repeated body language. But something about that final scene captured in the trailer, where the soldiers slowly look up to see what is apparently a plane, first one, then three, then all of them, to be followed by rapid duck and cover, I think there is going to be some masterful cinematography applied to WWII storytelling in a way that may never have been seen before. I’ll leave it for you to judge.

 

I’m excited about plenty of films coming out, for sure. I mean, at this point we’re going to have a Star Wars film every year, and that’s amazing. But as far as films that will be carefully constructed as works of high art, that master subtlety, and force the audience to be immersed in it’s world for a few hours of transforming and transcendent experiences that actually matter, I don’t think anything is going to beat Dunkirk in the next year. I won’t mind being proven wrong, but that’s my guess at this point.