I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous - Frank Turner
I had my own Waterloo sunset a month or so ago. I had attended a small but select gathering of old friends at the Bell and Crown in Chiswick, to say goodbye to my ex-best man, internationally recognised poet Phillip Radmall (he's published two books of poetry in Australia and did a reading in Hampshire this month so that's international enough for me) who had been back visiting the UK. At one point, we recalled that two of us had once challenged each other to a "Prufrock" recital duel. It was one of those things that was supposed to happen either at an annual gathering of friends in Sussex, or on a yearly visit to Hay-on-Wye (in the days way before the festival), but never did, a bit like the repeatedly unfulfilled intention to visit the lighthouse in Virginia Woolf's novel. One of our number had not heard of "Prufrock" ("shock", "horror"!), so we explained that T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" was the first major Modernist poem to achieve mainstream publication and was one of the best poems ever written, often overshadowed by the subsequent success of Eliot's "The Waste Land".
Arriving at Waterloo Station en route for home at around 10 pm to find that my train had been delayed, and having pondered the fact that our friend, an ex-diplomat, hadn't heard of it, I undertook an impromptu survey, asking randomly selected people (ie anyone foolish enough to venture near me), if the word "Prufrock" meant anything to them. My methodology was thus: I started by asking travellers if I could ask them one question, saying all I required was a yes or no answer and then I wouldn't bother them any more, and that I wasn't selling them anything. Surprisingly, nearly everyone I approached answered the question. After 69 interviews, the score was: 7 had heard of Prufrock, 62 hadn't. I was texting the tally to my friend Dick, on his own journey home from Chiswick, as I went along, but then forgot to do it as my excitement mounted at the interest my poetry poll was evincing. I must have finally asked over a hundred people with the response ratio remaining fairly constant at around 10 per cent of those polled having heard of Prufrock.
What I didn't record was the extremely high percentage of those who, once asked, wanted to know what I was talking about, and who then subsequently demanded more details, including quotes from the poem. Of course, they were talking to the right person for this, and I regularly responded with a rendition of the opening lines. Others looked it up on their phones and walked off reading the poem on-line, and many declared their intention to check it out once they had got home. No-one, but no-one, said they weren't interested.
Of the 7 to whom the word "Prufrock" meant something, 5 had heard of the poem, one knew the "Prufrock" business diary column in the Times and Sunday Times and another said he knew it from the song "I knew Prufrock before he was Famous" by singer/songwriter Frank Turner. This is where what I term "the recurring serendipitousness of being" kicks in.
I have since that evening discovered that, for several years, my friend Dick (from the pub and texts above) wrote the "Prufrock" column in the Sunday Times. For a time, while he did this, he lived in the village of Meonstoke in Hampshire where Frank Turner was brought up. They may even have passed one another in the half-deserted streets of Meonstoke or rubbed shoulders as they swelled the progress of the queue at the Co-Op.
Before Meonstoke, Turner was born in Bahrain, an island 30 miles long by 10 miles wide, situated in the Arabian Gulf, the same island on which I was born 26 years before.
While at Manchester University in the late 70's, Phillip Radmall, myself and a third would-be poet, Peter Whitton, produced a poetry magazine called "Lines", and indulged in much literary discussion in pubs in Manchester and subsequently London. Turner's song beautifully riffs on this youthful culture, that in the end success may not be the point and that
"....life is about love, last minutes and lost evenings,
about fire in our bellies and furtive little feelings
and the aching amplitudes that set our needles all a-flickering
and they help us with remembering that the only thing that's left to do is live..."
while evoking the sense of fading middle age and retrospection of Eliot's original poem that's more our current domain than his, the idea that to be on the fringes of moments of beauty may be as good as it gets, but that that's pretty good indeed:
".....I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown."
The point being that, when poetry seems so often to be bound to the page, or the troubadour ignored and dismissed as inconsequential music, people respond to the live rendition because it celebrates life, as they once did with Homer and Sappho, that poetry "gather(s) from the air a live tradition", as Eliot's old mucker Pound called it, even in Waterloo Station.
So, a "Prufrock Rendition Contest" at Hay on Wye? More people performing great poetry? More Prufrock surveys in mainline stations? Who's up for it?