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pp. 2-3 of The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (w/ undergrad notes)

My favorite poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” turns 100 this month. I first read T.S. Eliot in the spring of 2004 (my second semester at Northern Michigan University) and recall that I did not think much of him until Austin Hummell, subbing for Mark Smith (the instructor of record), invited the class to follow along as we read through “Prufrock” aloud. Professor Hummell’s enthusiasm for the poem—or perhaps just his excitement at getting to teach it—managed what I so often fail to do with my own students: it made me interested. Interested in Eliot’s similes (“Like a patient etherized upon a table”?). In his imagery (“yellow smoke”? “sprawling on a pin”? “a magic lantern”?). In the poem’s utter sadness (“I do not think that they will sing to me”). Its allusiveness (“S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse…”; “I am no prophet”; “I am not Prince Hamlet”). Its irregular rhythms and rhymes. Its texture and sound. Its obscure, difficult intimacy—like a meeting between “you and I” on “half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights.”

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pg. 4 of Complete Poems and Plays (w/ undergrad notes)

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Worn cover of The Complete Poems and Plays

I remained interested in Eliot over the following months, purchasing a used copy of The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 from a used bookstore (Frigate Books, now closed) in my hometown of Gladstone, MI. It was December 2004, and my wife and I had just announced we were separating a week or so earlier. It was a hard time for me (for us); we were both young and unhappy. I was an angry young man, unable to admit my unhappiness or my problem with anger. Although our divorce was the best thing that ever happened to us, I spent a long time with Eliot’s “Love Song” in the early months of 2005, identifying with the isolation and disappointment and lateness of the poem’s speaker. I carried The Complete Poems and Plays with me everywhere: to classes, parties, study sessions, restaurants. I read it everywhere, even as I walked from place to place, and accidentally memorized this particular poem. “Prufrock” eventually became much more than an exercise in self-pity; it became a kind of mental therapy. A mental and physical exercise, an interweaving of my body’s movment with the movement of the lines: their breaks, their enjambments, their punctuated and non-punctuated pauses. The poem also became an odd sort of measurement (how many “Prufrocks” will it take to walk there? here?). A talisman. A performance. A lure to bond or argue with other readers.

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Final lines…

Eleven years, three degrees, and a thousand miles later—and still with my life-partner of eight years, who heard me recite “Prufrock” on the first day we met—the 131-line poem is so fantastically and soul-crushingly alive to me. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read it, recite it, or teach it enough. (Though perhaps those closest to me are getting tired of hearing it!) Here’s a recording of “Prufrock” in Eliot’s infamous voice:

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“a pair of ragged claws”

And here’s my response:

And here is the text itself.
And the poem as it appeared in the June 1915 issue of Poetry.

26 thoughts on “Reading Aloud (#26): T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)

  1. Reblogged this on midnightsnackserial and commented:
    An amazing poem with a myriad layers of meaning. A hundred years have passed since it’s writing and it is still as powerful now as it was then.

  2. Alexandra says:

    Your tone of voice while reciting the poem gives it a special touch. It is almost as if you could feel the emotions of T.S Eliot while he wrote it. Each line contains deep meaning and your notes helped me fully understand what T.S Eliot wanted to convey. Just amazing. -Alexndra Rodil

  3. Gian M. says:

    The poem for T.S Eliot is very descriptive in essence.  The poem asked an abundant amount of questions, though it is very interesting to see how the narrator/character goes along his life asking himself what type of man he should be. The poem discusses the difficulties he faces of being a man in society. He knows so much that he is utterly terrified of women. Is he eloquent, a gentleman or neurotic? Also, the poem shifts from being direct, to using symbolism of oceans, to show that he is distant from society. In conclusion, I personally, as a reader, have had difficulties understanding poetry. Yet, Eliot uses a specific tone and choice of speed making it easier to understand and have a very clear picture of what the poem speaks to us about. All in all, it was a very good poem.
    Gian Marco Latoni

  4. Olangeric Velazquez says:

    I loved the depth that the speakers voice gives to the poem. When I read it on my own it was harder to understand, but his tone of choice transported me to the era of the poem and helped me understand it better. It is very interesting how something so small like the difference in the speaker and the flow of the voice can change a poem so completely. I gained a new perspective in the reading of poems and will definitely consider coming back for future poem reading.

  5. Alondra says:

    I was truly moved by the speaker’s rendition of this poem. I’ve never been a big poetry fan; I find it confusing and cumbersome. Reading it aloud didn’t help me and others portrayals felt somehow monotonous. However, the speaker portrayed so much emotion it was baffling to me. He wasn’t merely reciting, he was truly feeling the words he spoke, which made me feel as if i were feeling them with him. His fond, yet nostalgic tone in the beginning, The bother his position and the way others judge him, the faltering on daring to change that, the exasperation he feels knowing it is for naugth,his melancholy and the sense of defeat he feels by the end, coupled with almost a certain amount of relief. It definitely goes beyond anything I’ve experienced ever before in poetry.
    -Alondra Rodriguez (052)

  6. Gianellys Garcia says:

    In all honesty I did not understand the poem by itself. However, after having gone through the notes and hearing the “narrator” actually read the poem it was a completely different experience. Reading it aloud and in that particular way; the pauses, the whispers, the change of pace or tone of voice, and even the emphasis on certain words gave the poem a certain appeal that I couldn’t have accomplished by reading it on my own.

    At one time or another we have all self-pitied ourselves, we have all felt that we are not worth it, so in that sense “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is relatable. Nonetheless, Prufrock needs to let loose, get a grip, take risks, and like himself a little more.

    (ps. #1. I know it shouldn’t but the repetition of “Michelangelo” made me think of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, sorry…)

    – Gianellys R. Garcia Rodriguez (013)

  7. Ricardo says:

    I love how the tone of this poem varies so much throughout. Sometimes it was soothing, in a way you could almost hear the author reading something he wrote from the bottom of his heart. But then it varies in a way which I feel there is doubt, pain, a voice almost in agony but at the same time still with the soothing voice heard in the beginning. Truly amazing how the way a poem is read helps so much in how the message is conveyed.
    Ricardo Martínez Rodríguez

    1. Ricardo says:

      Section 023

  8. Fernand José Gracia Diaz (013) says:

    The way T.S. Eliot recites this poem, makes you think that the author itself is reading it (assuming that how we talked, by the year it was written,) especially by the “old man” voice used. Hearing this poem while reading it creates whole different experience, as if you can feel the narrators feelings yourself. Since you’re reading it while this voice is playing, your “inside” voice turns into T.S. Eliot’s voice, and how he expresses the feelings of the author, through the tone of his voice, creates an extraordinary feeling on self-identity even though one isn’t passing through the events of the poem.

  9. Daraliz Marrero says:

    The way you recited this poem made the feelings of the poet more perceivable. I had read this poem before, but had never heard it in that tone. The tone affected greatly my perception of the poem. Your voice made some verses more apparent than others and allowed me to understand better the vivid imagery presented in this poem. I was really impressed on how different a poem can seem to be depending on the tone you use to recite it.

  10. Patricia Leal says:

    The speaker’s voice presents an accurate and appropriate representation of the narrator’s feelings in the poem. With his voice, he shows us how desperate and lonely Prufrock really is. Also, his voice clearly displays how Prufrock’s static life is product of his low self-esteem and of the unnecessary pressure he puts on himself. Without a doubt, the speaker’s voice provides more emotion and understanding of what Prufrock is experiencing.
    Section 023

  11. Reading the poem by one’s self can be challenging. Reading the poem while listening to you recite it: a whole new experience. Thanks to the tone, you immediately made me travel back to 1915. I could feel the love, the tenderness, the fear, the pain and the never ending sentimentality of T.S. Eliot.
    ” 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.”
    Loved it! – Alejandra I. Robles

  12. Sara Espinosa Puig says:

    The way this is read makes the listener feel what the author expresses. It is captivating and entrancing. It makes you question why the author feels this way and why he expresses these feelings so intensely. He makes the listener wonder where his words come from, are they from sadness, fear, joy?
    Over all, the poem is beautifully expressed.
    -Sara Espinosa Puig

  13. Elliot Marrero says:

    whilst reading the poem you can feel certain elements like the uncertainty and melancholy of the speaker. when i was reading the poem i gave it a much slower tone and didn’t care much for it but after I heard the speaker put in his tone and mood I completely fell in love with the poem. he marks the poem at a much faster pace which created for me a heavy feeling desperation in times. i love the enormous amount of emotion that he brings in to one of my favorite verses “When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, then how should i presume”; he made me feel the desperation and uncertainty that were instilled in this precise moment. All in all the poem alone is great but when we add in your reading and your specific tone in turns into an amazingly deep poem.
    -section 023-

  14. Ashley says:

    Reading the poem by itself made it a bit hard to fully comprehend and didn’t leave that much of an impression on me. But when I listened to you read it, you made it feel more personal and it felt like the character/narrator was talking to us, letting us know of what he feels, the troubles he’s facing and the uncertainty in his soul. There were parts in which you rose your voice in agitation and lowered it in self-pity or sadness corresponding to the line being read. The way you read it and the pauses you made throughout the poem gave me a new perspective of it and made it show emotion where I didn’t see it.
    -Ashley Rodriguez Leon
    INGL3211 Sec. 052

  15. Gabriela M. Justiniano says:

    It is surprising to see how tone is expressed through writing as well as how it’s interpreted and recited. The way you expressed each and every word, brought upon the poem a whole new meaning. The feelings conveyed through your voice and each pause, created suspension throughout the writing. This in turn, sparked my curiosity towards the poem. I could empathize and understand the protagonist’s feelings that the author wanted to portray.

    Section 023

  16. Carla Marín says:

    The speaker of The Love Song shifts moods throughout the poem, making it harder to understand. As I read it on my own, it was difficult to see where the speaker changes topic and to not get lost in his words. The way you recited this poem really expressed the desperation, the anxiety and the depression Prufrock goes through. The tone of this poem and its changes is what makes this poem what it is, and your voice, your pauses, and your dramatic empasis give the listener a more complete understanding on Prufrock’s situation. The tone of The Love Song is key and it’s really fascinating how you made the emotion come alive with how well you recited it.

    1. Carla Marín says:

      023

  17. branchbooks says:

    This is my favorite poem of all time, so I am always hesitant to see how it is recited or performed. Nevertheless, the execution was fantastic! It conveys the emotions the poem deserves. From cautious, to exasperated, to dejected… The inflections he makes while reciting are great. It helps us understand the tone of this poem and how the narrator is questioning his life. I know it’s about a middle-aged man who’s life didn’t go exactly as planned, but don’t we all feel disillusioned at some point? We will be Alfred J. Prufrock eventually.

    Claudia Ramos (052)

  18. This is my favorite poem of all time, so I am always hesitant to see how it is recited or performed. Nevertheless, the execution was fantastic! It conveys the emotions the poem deserves. From cautious, to exasperated, to dejected… The inflections he makes while reciting are great. It helps us understand the tone of this poem and how the narrator is questioning his life. I know it’s about a middle-aged man who’s life didn’t go exactly as planned, but don’t we all feel disillusioned at some point? We will be Prufrock eventually.

    Claudia Ramos (052)

  19. This is my favorite poem of all time, so I am always hesitant to see how it is recited or performed. Nevertheless, the execution was fantastic! It conveys the emotions the poem deserves. From cautious, to exasperated, to dejected… The inflections he makes while reciting are great. It helps us understand the tone of this poem and how the narrator is questioning his life. I know it’s about a middle-aged man who’s life didn’t go exactly as planned, but don’t we all feel disillusioned at some point? We will be Prufrock eventually.

    Also this is another version I really like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RaDjwbEgLr8
    Claudia Ramos (052)

  20. Christian hernandez says:

    Your tone is perfectly atuned to the emotions of the poem. I can feel the confused thoughts that sat behind TS elliot’s thoughts while he wrote about if he dared to disturb the universe. I can feel the speakers despair and deep analysis of life and failing to do something worthwhile in the universe. Sir you have a real talent to convey emotion, I loved this poem but you made me love it more. Thank you.

  21. Joshua A. Reyes says:

    When reading, writing or reciting poetry it is important that the message is properly transmitted. For poets this is a complicated task since poetry is basically a way to say things without necessarily saying them; this poem is a perfect example of how a poet can accurately convey his thoughts and ideas. The author of this article, Benjamin D. Hagen, does a marvelous job of reciting this work of art. Reciting a poem takes a lot of practice, each word must be treated as it’s own unique world, poetic pauses must be made to ensure the metric is being met and fluctuations in the voice play a defining role. All of these factors were completed when listening his interpretation of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Elliot. Hearing this poem for the first time was an amazing experience, each word was pronounced appropriately, every color, feeling an idea was so surreal it was palpable and most importantly the message the author wanted to communicate was efficiently recited by this man.
    Joshua A. Reyes
    (INGL 3211-052)

  22. Luis Rios says:

    I find this poem to be amazing, and I enjoyed how your voice helps us understand the poem. When I picture this in my mind, I imagine a middle aged man, not happy with the direction his life has taken. The poem alone leaves an impression, but hearing it being recited adds a new meaning to it.
    Luis R Rios Castro (052)

  23. Javier E Rodriguez says:

    The poem seems interesting but in a distinctive and different manner to the piemas i tend to read. I really enjoy the way you recite this poem.
    Javier Rodriguez

  24. Diego Sotomayor says:

    As previously mentioned the tone makes T.S Elliot’s emotions more palpable and makes the audience gain a deeper, more personal dimension of understanding the poem’s obscure emotions.
    -Diego S. Sotomayor Irizarry

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