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Most of us who've reached a certain stage in life have had the experience of forgetting things that happened recently, while at the same time retaining the clearest memory of events or even statistical information from our childhood.
What exactly is it that occupies our memory bank, rudely crowding out the recollection of the person we met last week or yesterday's breakfast? In my case, I can point to three culprits: baseball statistics for the period prior to 1954, U.S. election statistics for the same period, and T.S. Eliot's poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
While I do sometimes wish I'd left more room upstairs for current events and new friends, essentially I regret nothing about the baseball statistics and election results. Baseball and politics were two ways in which a shy, bookish lad like me could relate to the larger world. At worst, this stuff was harmless. On balance, having a large store of baseball and political trivia probably wasn't too bad a plan. My baseball lore gave me something to talk about with boys with whom I otherwise had little in common, and my election lore more than once proved handy during my days as a part-time political columnist.
Eliot's Prufrock was something else again. If there were a surgical procedure that would rid my brain forever of this powerful but morbid production, I'd cheerfully submit to it, no matter what the risks. Alas, no such procedure exists, except perhaps in the pages of some obscure science-fiction novel. But how was it that I came to learn this entire 100-plus line poem and send it to the deep memory bank to keep company with Hal Newhouser's wartime pitching record and the states won by Harry Truman in 1948?
Flash back five and a half decades. I was a keen if rather eccentric student in a Grade 8 English class taught by one Mrs. Smith, a marvellous teacher of the old school. Under her watchful eye, we did lots of declaiming and performing in public. There were frequent spelling bees, and every Friday we were expected to recite at least 12 lines of verse from memory – no excuses accepted.
Most of my classmates at one time or another chose Robert Service's Cremation of Sam McGee. In a way, this choice was understandable. Service's strong rhythm and catchy rhymes made Sam McGee a pretty easy poem to memorize.
But did everybody have to pick it?
By mid-November, Sam McGee was getting awfully old.
By late January, I was tuning out whenever a classmate recited it. Couldn't someone at least have picked its equally catchy companion piece, The Shooting of Dan McGrew?
By early March, I swore that if I heard the blessed thing one more time, I would seize all the copies I could find and personally cremate them. It was then – largely in reaction to this severe overdose of Service – that I resolved to do Prufrock in its entirety.
Throughout the week prior to my recital, I would play our recording of Eliot reading Prufrock at the breakfast table.
I'm surprised no one complained that the thing was turning them from their vittles. Eliot is by far the worst reader of his own work I've ever heard. In his opening line, "Let us go then, you and I," he sounds like someone about to undergo a rectal examination, and things get progressively more awful from there. Somehow, old T.S. manages to strip each line of any possible emotional affect. At the end, you're left wondering how he found the energy to finish the reading.
Despite this dreadful recording, I easily learned the entire poem. On Friday morning, as a sort of dress rehearsal, I recited it to my family at breakfast.
The actual recital, on Friday afternoon, came off without a hitch. Mrs. Smith was pleased, and I was pleased as well.
Whether Eliot would have been pleased is another matter. I'm sure he would have said I put far too much emotion into my delivery. Fortunately, he wasn't there.
This could just be my memory playing tricks, but I don't seem to recall any classmate reciting Sam McGee after my Prufrock recital. If someone did do Sam McGee after that, I must not have been there. And if nothing else, I didn't do Sam McGee. For that alone, I was owed a debt of gratitude.
The last laugh, however, has been on me. Try though I may, I simply can't purge Prufrock – or Eliot's tortured attempt at reading it – from my memory. Even after 55 years, I can still recite large chunks of the poem unprompted.
Unlike the essentially harmless baseball stats and election results, Prufrock had a significant, lasting effect on me. Learning Eliot's persona helped give me a dour, pessimistic world view and indeed made me, in some ways, old before my time. To some extent, this effect was counteracted when, much later, I got to know more joyful poems such as Vachel Lindsay's The Congo and E.J. Pratt's The Truant. But for far too many years Eliot's tired, doddering old man held almost complete sway in my brain and, worse, in my psyche. (It didn't help that during my time as an undergraduate English major, Eliot was worshipped almost as a deity.)
I hate to say it, but in retrospect, it might have been better, at least for my emotional health, had I followed my classmates' example and the path of least resistance, and done Sam McGee myself.