Mark Levine recalls his first experience reading "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
The spirit of the poem is punky and irreverent, spot-on in its mockery of the starched language of authority and smeared with the grime of its churned-up dream life. I don’t know a thing about Eliot, but I know a teenage wasteland. This poem feels like home: Not the one I live in, but the one that lives in me.
‘‘Prufrock’’ would become the poem that lent my adolescent self protection from the wounds of chronic alienation and gave me tart words to wield against the insipidness of the world. Eliot himself was barely out of his teens when he wrote it, uncannily in touch with the exquisite torments of hypersensitive youth, and with the peculiar burden of seeing through everything without having experienced much of anything. This was a different species of verse. It exuded cinematic urgency rather than exam-ready ‘‘messages’’ and ‘‘themes.’’ It was full of sudden rhythmic jolts and colliding tones, and could make emotional pirouettes on a vowel. Unapologetic, brash, discontinuous, ‘‘Prufrock’’ taught me the thrill of disorientation in language. No matter how often I returned, it was never tamped down by classroom-style explanations. It grew. It seemed to understand me more than I understood it.