I have heard the mermaids singing

My daughter has discovered The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I knew she would at some time or another — I’d assumed they still taught it in schools, then I saw it in a poetry packet that she brought home from school and felt a long forgotten excitement in my chest. When I initially asked her what she thought about it, she said they had not gotten to it yet in a bored teenage voice.

Just before spring break she said, “Mom! I LOVED Prufrock!” in a not-so-bored teenage voice. She was animated and excited and quoted lines from the poem to me. We discussed the meaning of stanzas and wondered who the women were who were discussing Michelangelo.

I vividly remember reading Prufrock for the first time. I was a Freshman in college. I remember loving the rhythm of the syllables in the poem. I remember loving the pictures the words and lines painted. I remember wondering how coffee spoons could measure time or how eating a peach could be something daring to do. I was young with my whole life ahead of me. I was not going to be like this middle-aged man. Ever. I’d never be afraid like he seemed to be. I’d never regret missing out on things, because I knew I’d do it all. I had plans. Our professor was a middle-aged man. He tried to explain the poem to us from his perspective.

Reading the poem again, now in middle-age, is much more painful than it was when I was 19. At 19 I thought the man a fool for his regrets. I felt no pity for J. Alfred Prufrock. But now, I see where he is coming from. There are days that I have similar feelings to this man. Days when I regret things I’ve not done, and some that I have done. I’ve been shy all of my life and sometimes dealing with strangers has been frightening to me.

Mostly I think I’ve lived a good life so far — I’ve taken some risks — as a young adult and again as an older adult. I’ve faced a few fears and conqured them. My mom and aunt seem to think I can do it all, while my daughter seems to think I should have done more.

Some days I feel like giving in to my fears — staying home when I don’t want to face strangers. Having someone else make phone calls for me. Driving far out of my way to avoid having to drive in a city (yes, NYC, I’m talking about you). Other days, I take a deep breath and just DO. I go to meetings I’d rather not attend. I make those phone calls I was avoiding. I take the shorter route to Sarah Lawrence which goes through Manhattan (so say the signs).

What’s next? Eating alone in a fancy restaurant? Applying for a new job? Going birding with a bird group?

“And how should I begin?
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?”
–From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Elliot

8 thoughts on “I have heard the mermaids singing

  1. Oh, wonderful post, which makes me think of my regrets, many linked to my shyness…

    Perhaps we should go birding in a bird group together. But sometimes, those people make me crazy.


  2. Donna:

    Lovely post. Were you a Lit major in college? I was, and I loved poetry. It was my favorite thing. Well, that and 19th Century English novelists.

    I have to admit Prufrock didn’t make a major impression on me, though I did enjoy it. I really liked Keats in my early 20s, but am much less of a fan now. One poem that definitely has stood the test of time for me is “You, Andrew Marvell” by Archibald MacLeish. I loved it instantly and feel the same way about it to this day. Wallace Stevens, Howard Nemorov, and Dylan Thomas were other favorites. I think Sunday Morning was probably my first Stevens poem. I was instantly hooked.

    I can’t say I have many regrets. The few I do have, and they are painful, involve not being considerate enough of people I loved.

    Bird watching in groups is overrated if you ask me. It seems to turn into a competition one way or another — absolutely what bird watching is not about for me. Also, groups tend to move too fast and make too much noise for my taste. I’m sort of a meditative bird watcher. Hey, maybe a nice blog name. 🙂 “The Meditative Bird Watcher”

    I’m going to be applying for a new job soon myself. Took a voluntary severance package from the last company I worked for and left at the end of January. We’ll have to compare notes.


    Fiske’s last blog post..Pine Siskins!


  3. No, Fiske, I wasn’t an Lit Major — I was an education major. I’ve never really liked poetry — never really got it, so liking Prufrock was an unusual thing. I’ll have to look up “You, Andrew Marvell”.

    Good luck with your job application. I think I’ll stick with my sweet deal now — as long as I still have work to do — but if it dries up, I’ll need to go out looking. It is a terrifying prospect though.


  4. Are you on Facebook? Apparently I am. Damn!

    TSE? I remember some lovely first lines:

    Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
    being read to by a boy waiting for rain.


  5. Yes, Deloney, I’m on Facebook. I’ve been on it a couple of years, but just in the past 6 months or so have I become active.


  6. Some fears seem legitimate to me, and don’t necessarily need to be faced. For example, driving in Manhattan would be right near the top of my list.

    I’m learning so much from reading blogs. Thanks, and wonderful post.


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