The second piece in the life-changing literature series comes from Faye Rapoport DesPres, accomplished essayist, poet, and fiction-writer. I was delighted when Faye told me that she had chosen to write about a poem, and doubly delighted when I discovered that the poem was one that had played quite an important role in my own life, too. In just a handful of paragraphs, Faye somehow manages to do what all great writing does – transform what is singular and personal into something universal – speaking in the end to the hope that lives inside all writers’ hearts and drives us back to the desk every day.
Enjoy the post, and then learn more about Faye and her work below.
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I had a mixed reaction when Jarrett first asked me to write about “A Book (or Story, or Poem) That Changed My Life.” So many books have altered my life in small or large ways, and it seemed daunting to have to choose just one. My mind skimmed immediately over the most obvious choices; it ran through a quick list of the Russian classics — Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and The Brothers Karamazov, among others — because I read them in my twenties and became so absorbed in every aspect of them. I thought about The Complete Works of Shakespeare because I was never the same after being introduced to Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets; as both a writer and an actor in my younger years I was enchanted. It’s obvious from these first musings that I am attracted to the classics. Reading classic literature at a relatively young age altered the way I perceived the potential of the written word and my perception of the human condition.
But all of that sounds so obvious, and what was interesting to me was that as these titles and ideas passed through my mind something less obvious simmered underneath. I also love poetry, and there is one particular poem that has stayed with me over the years in ways that few others have: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.
Although I’ve studied the poem, it’s not the academic aspects of “Prufrock” that have stayed with me. In fact, T.S. Eliot is one of those poets who forces me to accept my literary limitations; there are many references in “Prufrock” that I have to research to this day if I want to attempt anything close to a complete understanding of the poem. If you are interested in an academic analysis, in fact, you can quickly find much more erudite interpretations than I can offer with one or two clicks of a mouse. For example, J. Hillis Miller, in Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers, writes: “… only an objective time can be other than the self, so that the flow of time can mean change for that self. But time, like space, has only a subjective existence for Prufrock. As a result, past, present, and future are equally immediate, and Prufrock is paralyzed” (Miller, 1965). I have to think hard about that before I can say I understand it, and even then I’m not certain that I do.
What I love about the poem is that I don’t have to analyze it to appreciate it. Instead, I just enjoy the affect it has on me. I am moved by it in a new way every single time I read it. My understanding of the poet’s message evolves over time; true, it changes as my understanding of literature and history improves, but it also changes with my understanding of life. The world T.S. Eliot described in the early 20th century was wildly different from the world I exist in a century later (“Prufrock” was published in 1915, which means that next year will be the 100th anniversary of the poem). Yet Eliot could have written this poem yesterday; a hundred years melts away the instant I read the first few words. “Let us go then, you and I,” the poet writes (Eliot, 1915). And I every single time, I go.
There is even more to my reverence than that timelessness, however—something more that makes me feel as if this poem changed my life. When I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” I have a visceral reaction. It’s as if, over the years, every word, every image, every detail of the rhyme scheme and the rhythm have become a part of me. Reading the poem is like hearing a song I’ve never forgotten or greeting an old friend who both challenges and comforts me. I can read the lines over and over again, and it’s a little hard to breathe every time because there’s something so masterful and perfect in every line.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” changed my life because once I read it I knew what could be achieved through poetry and language. I understood what I would never be capable of and, at the same time, what I might be able to do. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to write something as rich and complete and beautiful as that poem, something that might affect readers the way “Prufrock” affects me. I have no doubt that I’ll never achieve anything even close. But how exquisite it is to know that it is possible.
1. Miller, J. (1965). Poets of Reality: Six Twentieth-Century Writers. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
2. Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Barlteby.com. Available at: http://www.bartleby.com/198/1.html Accessed November 14, 2014.
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Faye Rapoport DesPres earned her M.F.A. from the Solstice Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. Her essays, fiction, poetry, interviews, and reviews have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines, including Ascent, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Eleven Eleven, Hamilton Stone Review, Platte Valley Review, Prime Number Magazine, Superstition Review, In the Arts, Fourth Genre, and the Writer’s Chronicle. Her first book, a memoir-in-essays titled Message From a Blue Jay, was published in May 2014 by Buddhapuss Ink. Faye is a freelance writer/editor and an Adjunct Professor of English at Lasell College. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and four rescued cats, and her website is www.fayerapoportdespres.com.
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Want to tell the world about a book (or story, or poem) that changed your life? Comment below or contact me on Twitter to find out more about contributing a guest post.