Now that my wife has stopped drinking coffee, I make my own, one cup each day, standing alone in the cold early morning kitchen, shivering in the glare of the too-white florescents, the sun is not yet up and my wife is still in bed, while I listen for the thump-thump of the local newspaper being thrown onto our neighborhood driveways from a passing car, headlights on high beam.
It is then that I think of the line, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” but without the regret of the original—that’s just how life appears when looking back from the far end. The large coffee can from Costco was once full, but each day it drops little by little, one spoonful after another, until I can see the bright bottom. How many more cans will I use, I wonder. Will the bright bottom of the last can appear suddenly or gradually, just peeking out now and then? Each can takes a special value as it represents my dwindling life.
One of our English teachers taught us The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot and that very line. She was very enthusiastic about the poem, but I am vague about just which teacher she was. I think it was Mrs. Christ, who sidestepped blasphemy and pronounced her name with a short “i” to rhyme with “kissed,” a rhyme that never would have occurred to me back then. I only remember her as having all-white hair combed severely back like Paulie Walnuts.
I did not like the poem then, so I looked it up to see if I had missed something, the source of her enthusiasm. I did not, and I still do not like it.
Prufrock is a whiny milquetoast of a man, a victim of his own indecisiveness and insecurities. He begins with an invitation to his love, “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky,” suggesting a shared bohemian life of abandoned discovery, but we soon realize he is only imagining what he would like to say as he concludes even the bohemian life is a giant bore where “The women come and go / Speaking of Michelangelo.”
We know he will eventually spend his life as a clerk in someone else’s hardware store.
I later had a professor at Penn State for a required English literature course who said good literature had to both show a special insight into human nature and to express that insight with artistry. Writing can fail on either criterion.
I can only imagine Mrs. Christ thought Prufrock expressed the indecision that all young teenagers could relate to. But she was wrong. Teenagers appear indecisive because they have to make what they know are lifelong decisions without the life experiences to guide them. But they generally do surprisingly well, with notable exceptions. Many of those exceptions—and I was one— are sampling alternate life styles for clues to the correct decisions. It is not indecision, but a deliberate search for further education, far more relevant than a high school discussion of a T. S. Eliot poem. Only today has such a sampling become a dangerous trap of drugs and pregnancy.
Eliot wrote Prufrock when he was only 26, so I cut him some slack. What does a 26-year-old know about life, even a genius 26-year-old?
And, now, at my age, full of life experiences, I have no need to ruminate on insecurities. More relevant than T. S. Eliot is Popeye: “I yam what I yam.” Yet, here I am, discussing Prufrock, so this is finally Mrs. Christ’s confirmation. Thanks, Mrs. Christ, if that was you.
Trivia: What was Mrs. Christ’s first name? Yes, she had one. Incongruously, it was “Virginia.” She looks more like a “Clare.”