“I grow old, I grow old/I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
-- T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)
I have never been a big reader of poetry, not because I don’t admire poets, but rather because, they, more than almost any other kind of writer, seem most in touch with life and all its difficulties. Whereas psychologists do what they can to help people feel better about things, poets -- so it seems to me -- do what they can to make sure everyone else can share the existential misery they feel. (And, by the way, before any of you poets and lovers of poetry get all upset with me, I’m writing this to a large degree tongue in cheek.)
Great poets are, of course, often brilliant in their insights. To combat my envy over their ability to show us more directly than almost any other kind of creative artist just what life is all about, I’d like to playfully address some of their poetic perceptions – starting with one where a great poet got it wrong.
The Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot began writing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” one of his most famous poems, when he was only 22, and it was published when he was 26. So there he was, such a young guy, writing about growing old. Yet while everyone says what a great poem this is, that “trousers rolled” line would suggest that this young whippersnapper didn’t have a clue about aging. As I have grown old, I have not worn the bottoms of my trousers rolled, and I don’t call them trousers; they’re pants, usually jeans, and not only don’t I relate to that part of the poem, I also have trouble with another line in it, “Shall I part my hair behind?” I’m lucky I even have any hair, and there’s really not enough to part, behind or to the side.
But perhaps I am coming on too strong, because I do get the next words in that line, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Have you ever tried to eat a peach? How can you eat a nice juicy peach without getting the juice all over your hands, not to mention having some of it spill onto your clothes and the floor? I have solved this problem either by avoiding peaches altogether or eating them over the sink. And I must admit, I do not recall such problems when I was a younger man, not because the peach juice didn’t drip, but because I just didn’t care.
Looking more carefully at the poem, I do see that the young Eliot did show more understanding of the aging process for us guys than I might at first have given him credit for, as he writes of “the bald spot in the middle of my hair” (I can absolutely relate to this), and “They will say, ‘How his hair is growing thin!’” No one has ever said this to my face, but I am pretty sure they are saying it behind by back. As usual, it is one’s child who will speak the truth that others won’t utter. Years ago, I remember one of my sons standing behind me and saying, “Maybe it’s time for the old Minoxidil, Dad.”
“Prufrock” was bad enough, with its rolled up trouser legs and fears of eating peaches, not to mention hair loss. This was nothing compared to what Eliot wrote in “The Hollow Men” when he was in his mid-30s. If reading lines like “We are the hollow men,”“This is the dead land,” and “There are no eyes here/In this valley of dying stars” brightens your day, I think it’s time to up the dosage of your antidepressant.
There are poets who write less mournful verse, who try to keep things light, like Billy Collins, former U.S poet laureate. For example, here is the opening stanza from his poem “Forgetfulness”: “The name of the author is the first to go/ followed obediently by the title, the plot/ the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel/ which suddenly becomes one you have never read,/ never even heard of.”
Certainly this is not as upsetting as “the valley of dying stars,” but still, what Collins is writing about is not really amusing at all. He is writing about how your memory goes as you get older. As in the case of Eliot, Collins showed some prescience about aging and memory; he was only 58 when the poem was published. True, your memory is already starting to go by then, but Billy would, like the rest of us, see that it would only get worse.
So Billy Collins doesn’t give me a lift either.
But the poets considered most brilliant are the ones who most directly confront our deepest fears. Near the top of the list is Dylan Thomas, whose most famous lines are “Do not go gentle into that dark night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Sorry, but he’s not talking about going out for a drive after dark.
And great female poets also haven’t exactly lightened things up. Consider Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Mirror.” Taken from the standpoint of a mirror in a woman’s room, it ends with the lines, “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman/ Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.”
Life is hard enough without these brilliant poets telling us how difficult it is. How can I keep practicing the denial I know and love if I read lines capturing the universals of life, aging, and death? Better I should eschew poetry altogether and see my therapist more often. Also, I think it’s time to get back to reading children’s books, where people are not hollow, and live happily ever after — with full heads of hair, ageless faces, and perfect memories.
(On a serious note, I do have to say that reading those lines and the poems from which they come reminds me of the wonderful contribution these eloquent writers have made.)