jacquelyn malone: what did miss caldwell know about the first poem i fell in Love With?

This is the third in a series of stories on the first poem a poet fell in love with.

Miss Caldwell’s seventh period Senior English was made up of jocks and smart kids. Often the two categories overlapped. Two of our star basketball players were top scholastic graduates, one as salutatorian and the other as third in our class. The first in the class was the head cheerleader, soon to be runner-up for Miss Nashville, and one of my best friends. The status and the brain power of the class made it a competitive and a somewhat edgy community. As a cheerleader, a lead in the class play, Outstanding Forensic League Girl in Nashville, member of the National Honor Society, etc., I perhaps should have felt right at home. But I was a teenager. What teenager ever feels completely at home?

It was in this classroom and in this group of classmates that I met the first poem I truly fell in love with, a poem as tentative and cautious as I was --  T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I grew up having my mother read poetry to me from her high school English book, but this was the first poem that I came across that hit me hard. Eliot begins with a long quotation from Dante in Italian, which Miss Caldwell translated and explained. One of the damned in the Inferno opens up to Dante, daring to tell what he wouldn’t tell if he believed Dante would ever return to earth.  Miss Caldwell, who obviously loved the poem, helped us see that it was the same kind of revelation we heard in Prufrock -- a confession, a disclosure of unease. He is telling his story in a tentative, somewhat ironic tone, which is the tell-tale sign of Prufrock’s insecurity. It is a monologue of a character who doesn't expect anyone to care enough to notice what he says. He is a man we overhear talking to himself.

He seems to begin in a forthright way: "Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky." But the evening is like an etherized patient and the streets are seedy and restless as they lead not to a physical destination, but to an overwhelming question. At this point Prufrock pleads, "Oh, do not ask, "What is it?/ Let us go and make our visit."

The poem is littered with such moments of questioning and indecision:

"There will be time, there will be time/ To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;/There will be time to murder and create."

Do I dare/ Disturb the universe."

"So how should I presume?"

"And should I then presume?/ And how should I begin?"

"Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?"

Though at that point in my life I had never seen "sawdust restaurants with oyster shells" or walked into a room where women were talking of Michelangelo, in that high romantic way a teenager can feel isolated and one of a kind, I knew that restlessness, that fear, that loneliness. And though I'm not sure at that point in my life I felt the need to search for meaning the way Prufrock obviously does, It's a poem rich enough to take on the quandaries of a reader at any age.

I think back on that class, on Miss Caldwell, whom I later realized would have been majoring in English at Vanderbilt at the same time John Crowe Ransom taught there and some of his students would have included Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, and Allen Tate, who became the Fugitive Poets.  Would a female student have been able to have the tiniest access to the excitement the Fugitives must have had in their meetings? How much of the Fugitives' energy carried over to Ransom's classrooms?  That would also have been about the time of the beginning of the New Criticism movement, which, of course, Eliot promoted in England and Ransom and others of the Fugitive movement promoted in America. It all makes me wonder what Miss Caldwell really heard in her English classes at Vanderbilt. Did she take classes with Ransom? Did she know Robert Penn Warren? Did she hear them talk about Eliot? Was some of the fervor she brought to her classroom so long ago a firsthand knowledge of those early readers of Eliot?

Wouldn't I love to talk to Miss Caldwell now! I figure she would be around 120-years-old were she alive.  I love "The Love Song... ," but I wouldn't mind loving it more. Miss Caldwell, if only we could talk.


Jacquelyn Malone worked as Senior Web Writer/ Editor at IBM and Lotus Development Corp., taught both technical and scientific writing and editing at Northeastern, and writes poetry. She has won a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship Grant in Poetry, is the author of a chapbook titled All Waters Run to Lethe, and has been published in numerous journals, including Poetry, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Northwest, and Cortland Review. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart and have appeared on the website Poetry Daily.  She is the mother of two children and has six grandchildren.