Lost References

Last week, I wanted to quote a line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” so, in this sad time when none of us can trust our poetic memory, I Googled it.

This is what I most envy my elders: Their brains were honed and polished by all they committed (apt word) to memory, and the words bound them to beauty.

Me, all I remembered was that Prufrock was the name of a furniture store here in St. Louis, the hometown T.S. Eliot detested. As I reread the poem, I realized how little I understood of these lines I had loved instinctively. Always willing to cheat, I checked Wikipedia for a quick guide.

The poem is short and comparatively simple (for Eliot). Yet the allusions dance from the Bible to Shakespeare to The Canterbury Tales to Greek and British poetry. Puzzling them out means embarking on a reverse scavenger hunt, each clue bouncing you backward to yet another reference.

Two of my favorite lines, “To have squeezed the universe into a ball” and “indeed there will be time” apparently lead back to Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”—which leads back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which also shows up in the phrase “full of high sentence,” a description of Chaucer’s clerk of Oxford. “I know the voices dying with a dying fall” conjures Orsino’s first lines in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and as we know, Shakespeare cribbed from everybody. Prufrock himself is an obvious Hamlet who refuses the role, insisting he is only “an attendant lord” there to lend advice—which probably means he sees himself as Polonius, more fool than prince.

“Time for all the works and days of hands” steals its evocative “works and days” from the title of a long poem by the early Greek poet Hesiod that was likely influenced by Sumerian, Hebrew, Babylonian and Egyptian wisdom literature. Stay with me; there is a point. The mention of a prophet refers to John the Baptist—and to Oscar Wilde’s Salome. And “There will be time to murder and create” nods toward Ecclesiastes 3, which some believe was written by King Solomon.

Finally (and this list is nowhere near comprehensive), “Among some talk of you and me” echoes “Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee” in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, in which skeptical and Sufi influences do gentle battle.

There was a time when a good education meant a classical education, and all of these references would have easily come to mind without a single Google. How much fun that would make reading poetry—cooler than the instant decoder spy ring I tried to buy from the back of a cereal box when I was seven. As it is, much that is layered and interesting washes right over me, and I come up sputtering and confused.

Pop culture is even worse, because I never took to it. Apparently I stood up in my crib conducting Johnny Carson’s orchestra, then slept in the next morning, ignoring cartoons. It set a pattern of oblivion. I can hum music without a clue to the song’s name, let alone artist or album. You do not want me on your team at a Trivia Night. My husband has stopped even checking for comprehension; he footnotes automatically: “Santa and Samuel L. Jackson were in Pulp Fiction together, honey, and that joke is a reference to….”

I have made my peace with all I am missing. What worries me is all we are missing. The long overdue expansion (and explosion) of the canon has one big drawback: Nobody will have read all the same stuff. When the doors opened wide, teachers all, understandably, slapped their own favorites on the list. Now, with the entire world and all its history to choose from, we have a gorgeous mélange and little we can count on as shared references.

The Common Core satisfies itself with a mention of “Shakespeare and an American dramatist” for high school seniors; once they hit college, anything can happen. One state university’s English Literature 200 syllabus surveys Breakfast at Tiffany’s, True Grit, Yertle the Turtle (yes, by Dr. Seuss), Othello, and Superman: Red Son.

I am guessing—no, praying—that with an entire world of literature to choose from, other survey courses make other picks. Which is both a relief and a complication. If we all came to know Breakfast at Tiffany’s, True Grit, and Yertle the Turtle backwards and forwards, we could at least paddle in the same shallow pool. As it is, we have fewer and fewer common reference points—and the elitist colleges who try to make a definitive list are usually too fascist and too White to survive. The odds of overlap are down to a little Shakespeare and maybe the Bible (though even that grows dubious with so many other important religious texts to rival it and religion itself on the downswing).

How will writers add depth and texture? Tossing in their own favorite references will soon exhaust overstimulated and short-tempered readers. No doubt a lot of fine work will continue to rise to the top, but commonality does lay a groundwork. We have already seen what happened when we lost Walter Cronkite, by which I mean a shared and trusted news source: We lost the ability to talk to each other.

Have you ever started a conversation with someone, both of you liking each other and eager to compare notes on beloved films or books, except that with every “Have you read…?” or “Have you seen…?” the other person sadly shakes their head no? The initial excitement fizzles like a wet match. Finally, you land on something really basic or silly, and you laugh with relief and talk about it far too long. This, writ large, is the dumbing down that can happen to an entire society when too few people catch the references. Or when all the references people catch are as ephemeral (yet sticky) as jingles from old commercials.

Curious whether anybody else is worried, I searched for “lost reference points.” First hit? A list of ninety-seven tv shows that scripted in sly references to the show Lost—followed by pages and pages expounding on these references and an L.A. Times slideshow of the pop culture references in the show.

T.S. Eliot might be intrigued by the interplay our linked culture allows. But I doubt he would fancy us relying on hyperlinks to read his work.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.