We get our language back through the language of others. We can turn to the poem. We can open the book. Somebody has been there for us and deep-dived the words.
—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I don’t remember exactly when I first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I remember my state of mind. The melancholy. The dislocation. It was around 1990 and I was 16. I felt there was no one with whom to share my thoughts, my fears, or my dreams. My father whose idea of spending time with me involved going to NASCAR races or RV shows never knew how to connect with his sensitive, literary daughter. My schizophrenic mother was not in this world and spent her days muttering to herself and scribbling notes in the margins of the New York Daily News. The friends with whom I felt so close just a few years before were morphing into creatures who listened to angsty indie crooners like Morissey and only wore Doc Martins. Where once we talked easily, I became less interested in their conversations and numbly smiled and nodded at the appropriate moments. In AP classes full of kids groomed to attend Dartmouth and Boston College, I only opened my mouth when called on. I walked the halls of my high school and my life playing my part but feeling as though there was a pane of glass separating me from everyone else.
There’s something desperately wrong with me, I told myself. Perhaps I would become schizophrenic like my mother. The books and articles that I read about my mother’s illness indicated that 17 was often when the voices would begin whispering in my ear. And I DID feel as though I couldn’t connect with anyone. I craved closeness and intimacy, but I didn’t know how to achieve it and I was afraid to try.
Then I read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I absorbed his words and whispered them to myself again and again. This narrator, paralyzed by doubt and indecision, lived entirely in his head.
…There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
…And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair…
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
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,
And when I am pinned and wriggling against the wall,
The how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
How did he know? How did T.S. Eliot in 1921 write a poem about a middle-aged man that articulated the very alienation I was feeling? The same fear of judgement?
For once I felt understood. Prufrock gave voice to my fears and I knew I wasn’t alone. The poem also helped me understand that writing, and poetry in particular, could be a way to explore and give voice to doubts swirling in my head. The poem also gave me permission to not be confident. Eliot painted a portrait of a man wracked with doubt and turned his voice and feelings into art. Could I do the same? While I had always been a reader, experiencing Prufrock helped me recognize that writing could be my way of connecting to myself and connecting with others. Through writing, I could show people what I was thinking, construct a narrative for myself, and claim an identity: I am a writer.