Thursday, November 3, 2005

Prufrock Thoughts and Mitty Moments

Several months ago, I was at the county's bi-weekly poetry society meeting, and we were discussing some poem or another when T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” came up. Now, we typically focus on stuff written by modern (read: living) poets, but every now and then we’ll stumble upon the subject of a dead, canonized poet such as Eliot, Keats, Yeats, or Dickinson.

I have always been under the weird impression that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” while a great poem for many reasons, finds much of its appeal in the universality of its speaker, J. Alfred himself.

I mean, don’t we all have Prufrock moments, if not necessarily Prufrock lives? Am I hopelessly neurotic because I have “Prufrock moments” from time to time? Because I think Prufrockian thoughts--by that, I mean that quotes from the poem actually come to mind--when certain events occur in my life?

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet …

One older man at our poetry meeting claimed never to have had a single Prufrock moment, claimed not to understand why anyone would identify with the pathetic J. Alfred Prufrock. Others didn't say either way if they'd ever experienced a Prufrockian thought. I ended up being the only neurotic-sounding person there.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
[They will say:
“How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

I just knew he had to be the rule. Not the exception. So I did a Google search on “Prufrock moment,” expecting to find thousands of hits. Nope. Just 48.

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,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall...
Of the people who admitted to having Prufrock moments, we have the following:

- A teacher
- A writer who keeps a copy of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in the car and whispers stanzas to himself as he drives
- A movie critic
- A poet
- Another writer
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

So. Maybe only neurotic writer-types have Prufrock moments. I don’t know.

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And speaking of literary characters, am I the only person in the world who admits to having had “Mitty moments”? This term derives from James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which my ninth-grade English class read last week. A Mitty moment is a moment of dreaming the impossible, in a way. Particularly if you’re dissatisfied at your job and dissatisfied with your life: that's when you're more likely to let your mind wander and get lost in a fantasy of what life should be. Walter Mitty's fantasies included being a pilot, a surgeon, and a military captain--always a hero of some kind. I dreamed of … well, I’ll keep those dreams to myself. But one of those dreams was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Granted, I haven’t had the leisure to wallow in Mittyesque imaginings much since I started teaching school, but I definitely had Mitty moments when at my cubicle job.

Can Mitty moments be as rare as Prufrock moments? I Googled “Mitty moments” and got 285 hits. Still not a lot. But I did find a few interesting things.

Here’s a short piece on Mitty moments in which a Christian writer tells of Peter’s Mitty moments. He concludes with this:

Yet I wonder where we would be without our Walter Mitty moments. "Where there is no vision, the people perish", says the proverb. Without the dream of a new, free land, the Pilgrims would have stayed in Holland. Without the dream of liberty and justice for all, many of our citizens would still be shackled in slavery. Without the dream that all should know God, Christianity would be a minor Jewish sect.

Without our dreams we would all be condemned to the life of Walter Mitty. For Walter Mitty's fantasies never went beyond the tiny box of his brain. His fantasies never became dreams.
Meryl Streep had a Mitty moment, too ... sort of. Actually, I'm not sure what she means here.

"I had a ball, it was a real Walter Mitty moment." --On what it was like to play Carnegie Hall
So I guess Mitty moments aren’t as rare as Prufrock moments.

Or maybe people have these moments, but they don’t have a name for them because they didn’t listen in their high-school English classes.

Are Prufrock thoughts and Mitty moments really as rare as Google would have us believe?

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