Today is the birthday of T.S. Eliot--a fact that I was made aware of by my morning email from The Writer's Almanac. In honor of the occasion, I offer this short tribute.
When I was a senior in high school, I was looking for a new challenge. I had been involved with high school Speech competitions for the previous two years, almost always in the Original Oratory category. One afternoon, I was organizing my parents books for a little extra cash, and came upon a collection of poetry by T.S. Eliot, probably from my mom's undergraduate days as an English major at Boston University. I opened it up, read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and was so struck by it that I spent the rest of the afternoon memorizing it.
A couple of weekends later, I entered a speech competition in the Poetry category. I was thrilled to share the poem--I felt like I had re-discovered an little-known masterpiece (I had never heard of T.S. Eliot, after all) and my heart swelled with the idea that I was bringing something very special to the world that day.
To my horror, the first contestant in my first round of competition that morning recited, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Not only that, he began his recitation with a few minutes of introduction of T.S. Eliot and interpretation of the poem. I hadn't realized that was part of the competition at all, so I listened very closely to what he said so that I could repeat it in later rounds. His basic assertion was that the poem was the words of a middle class Englishman, spoken from the grave, looking back on his life with regret.
I did pretty poorly in competition that day--fumbling through a plagiarized introduction, my confidence shaken. But the truth was, there was something about that contestant's interpretation of the poem (almost certainly supplied to him by his coach or English teacher) that just didn't sit right with me. I had never read any formal studies of the poem, but I knew in my gut that it wasn't about death, and it wasn't about being English. It was too alive, too universal, too much about me, a mid-western American, on the brink of graduating from high school, leaving home and growing up.
Is every step of my growing up, growing old, a step away from the limitless potential I sensed that year before college? I was aware of it even then--our imagined lives, our imagined future, have a kind of vitality that actual life never has. So we linger there in our imaginings, assuring ourselves that "there will be time."
I still find myself muttering at times, "No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be..." And at other times I say, "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" When do we push forward into life, and when do we need to receive with gratitude the role that we have received?
I gave up competing with the poem quickly, but the poem has stayed with me the rest of my life.