Two Poems, One Song
In high school, I was not college-bound. I did not know what I wanted to do with my life, I did not see how I could even afford to go to college, and I was damn tired of academics. But somehow I ended up in advanced placement literature my senior year. It was there that I encountered two life-altering poems. I wish that I could say that this class woke up my academic ambitions and opened a limitless literary world to me, but it didn’t. In spite of her wit and caring, Mrs. Hukari wasn’t able to get a whole lot of engagement out of me. And the poems themselves were not particularly engaging, though I did write the last stanza of “Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold, in my journal. It was the “Ah, love, let us be true / to one another” (29-30) that got to me, the image of two lovers clinging to love and to each other in the midst of an unfriendly world. It fit nicely with my notion that romantic love was all that I needed to be complete, that when I met “the one,” all my troubles would be over. I don’t even remember reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I imagine that my literary laziness cried mutiny when faced with the barrage of imagery and potential themes in that poem. I’m sure I questioned how reading poetry would be at all useful in my transformation into adulthood. It would take the third piece of the puzzle, the song, to show me the power of such small moments in my life.
I got my first job a few weeks after graduation in June of 1986. I worked as a salesperson at Mervyn’s department store. Retail is a depressing segment of the working world, but I was resigned to it by the procurement of money, which was a welcome novelty. I was still living at home, and was thus able to spend my paychecks pretty much how I wanted to. I bought a lot of records that summer. One of them was the Bangles’ first album, All Over the Place.
I have some quarrels with the Bangles, and All Over the Place is certainly not a perfect album. There is mediocrity. There is filler. But there is also some good stuff, and there is the song “Dover Beach.” I wish I could precisely remember the first time I listened to it. It would have been in the family living room, which held the family stereo. There would undoubtedly have been family members around, since I had five younger siblings who were all still living at home, and time alone was rare. But I somehow see myself as alone, in a bedroom I shared with no one, and with my own private turntable. I know that I listened to the song repeatedly. The careful lift of the turntable’s arm, and the setting of the needle back into the groove that marked the song’s beginning was something I was very good at back then. And somehow, during those jangly-guitar repetitions, I had the minor epiphany that would reoccur regularly throughout my adulthood.
At its most basic, the epiphany was that Susanna Hoffs and Vicki Peterson, the two Bangles who wrote the song, were readers of poetry. I suppose it could have been coincidence that the song had the same title as Matthew Arnold’s poem, but was it coincidence that both poem and song speak to a lover in an imperfect world, longing for a place where there were no imperfections to pull them apart? And it was certainly no coincidence that the song contains a direct reference to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The image of those who “come and go and talk of Michelangelo” is pretty damn singular. Mrs. Hukari would have been proud to know that I had paid enough attention in class to recognize an allusion and an homage when I saw them. And at first, that was the extent of my epiphany. These musicians read poetry, and they liked it enough to reference it in their own work.
At this point, my cerebral musings about the interactions between these three pieces went dormant for a while. It was the pre-internet age, and I wasn’t impressed enough by the poetic references in the song to go to the library in order to look more closely at the poems and how their inclusion might affect the meaning of the song. It was just a point of interest for the next few years; whenever I heard the song, I got a little nostalgic for Mrs. Hukari’s class, and slightly curious about why the poems were made a part of the song. Life and its vagaries kept me plenty busy, as I sought the love that would bolster me in a world made up of clashing, ignorant people, and the struggle and flight of modern life.
Sometime in the first couple years of my marriage, my Bangles album disappeared. The album cover was there, and the flimsy paper sleeve, but the vinyl disc vanished, never to be found. So did my belief in romantic love. It wasn’t that my husband was an asshole. It wasn’t that there was any abuse or cheating or nefarious doings. It just turned out that all the movies and books and songs and religious doctrine regarding love and its role were full of shit. Even when two people are smart, and kind, and love each other and their children, marriage is a soul-sucking, zombifying undertaking, and the true ignorant armies, the clash and struggle, are two people trying to hold onto individual identity in an institution that breeds homogeny.
So my marriage ended. A new era began, with many challenges and trials, but with the joyous return to myself as me, and not just wife and mother. I went back to school. I watched my children grow and mature. They both graduated from high school and then I finally got my bachelor’s degree. They were both in college and I got my master’s degree in teaching. I began to look for work. I was endorsed to teach English at the middle school and high school levels. Mrs. Hukari would have laughed long and loud to see where I ended up.
The economy was still reeling from the mortgage meltdown, and public school teaching jobs were hard to come by. I finally got an interview at a tiny high school for kids who were in residential treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Part of the interview process was for me to teach a short lesson. It had to be poetry. I am not a big fan of poetry. I had two days to put it together.
Enter the Internet. Enter allusions and homages and jangly guitars. For the first time I looked closely at these two poems that had haunted me since high school. I read literary criticism and interpretation. I mapped out the intersecting themes, the repeated imagery, the possible connections between what Arnold and Eliot had to poeticize about the world, and what the Bangles, Hoffs and Peterson, had to sing. I constructed the required twenty-minute lesson. I opened with the Bangles rendition of “Dover Beach.” I talked a little too quickly about dreams and time and uncertainties, and about the chaos of the world and its threat to love’s ability to last. It was an adequate lesson and the students received it with a kind tolerance. I got the teaching job, even though the principal admitted that he hates the Bangles about ninety percent of the time. And I got the chance to reflect more deeply about how the themes and imagery and connections in these pieces related to my own thoughts on love and the things that get in love’s way.
The lyrics to “Dover Beach” aren’t too complicated. Hoffs and Peterson indicate a longing for a simpler life, where daily duties and the limits of time no longer keep lovers apart. It is by referencing the poems of Eliot and Arnold that depth is added to this longing. Eliot’s speaker wrestles with ambivalence and uncertainty, and Eliot contrasts Prufrock’s railings and effusions with the calm, repeated image of women walking to and fro, leisurely discussing Renaissance artist Michelangelo. By co-opting Eliot’s image, Hoffs and Peterson inject an idealized vision of a world that is kind to lovers, allowing time to walk together, talking of art and culture and the higher forms of thinking that elevate humans above the rest of the animal kingdom. Unspoken, but there, is the true world, in which idealized love must bow to the realization that love does not bring perfect understanding and communion, that two imperfect people in love remain two imperfect people, and that the stresses of survival in the modern world often trump any transcendent moments lovers might have together.
But it is in the referencing of Arnold’s poem that Hoffs and Peterson bring home their true message, one that resonates with my own thoughts on love in the modern world. Arnold examines the world’s misleading appearance, likening it to “a land of dreams, / so various, so beautiful, so new” (31-32), then goes on to blast the world’s true nature as being loveless, lightless, and joyless, full of pain, uncertainty, and constant conflict. Rather than dispensing their own description of the world, Hoffs and Peterson allude to Arnold’s description, and all that becomes necessary is their final pronouncement that “The world is no one’s dream / We will never ever find the time” (19-20).
This is a bleak place to leave listeners, but it is far more truthful than the barrage of “saved by love” songs and books and movies forced upon the masses. Hoffs and Peterson steer us toward T.S. Eliot, who writes of Prufrock’s inability to understand his lover, and we are reminded of all the self-help books, all the couples counseling, and all the talk-show folderol aimed at the desperate people lacking that same understanding. Hoffs and Peterson present us with Matthew Arnold, and he gives us two tiny humans dwarfed by nature and surrounded by the darkness of man’s creations. Eliot uses Prufrock to question the universe, to rail against aging, to grudgingly admit to a certain mediocrity, and the world we know, with its messages of chasing dreams, never giving up, and the triumph of true love becomes a cartoon, ridiculous and flat.
But before you schedule your existential crisis, remember that we are talking about the power of small moments. It’s true that, when listened to with no prior exposure to the dialogue contributions of Arnold and Eliot, the Bangles leave us in a wasteland, where love is a taunting impossibility. But Eliot, even as Prufrock dreads the revelation of his own meaninglessness, still allows him to declare that there will be “Time for you and time for me” (31), never suggesting that the inability to understand his lover means he should eschew the having of a lover. There is still meaning in relationships. Arnold’s response to the darkness of the world is to cry, “Ah, love, let us be true / to one another!” (29-30), indirectly telling us that the faithful devotion of two people may be enough to hold off the darkness. Small moments, these, but if one is to accept that Hoffs and Peterson referenced these poems for a purpose, one must accept that these small moments of hope might mean as much as, or more than, all the images of pain and disconnection and uncertainty. For while the world is a dark place, and while the romance industrial complex spews daily noxious messages, it is true that it’s in our personal interactions with each other, both romantic and platonic, that our deepest human meaning is found.
I knew all this, at some level, but it was the conscious processing of three different texts from two different artistic mediums, weighing and measuring them against my own experiences, that allowed me to crystallize my thoughts on love and relationships and our partnerships upon this darkling plain. We are led to understanding and growth through those big moments in life—love, sex, birth, death—but we cannot discount the smaller moments as we stand in grocery store lines, get to know people who have had vastly different experiences, or grudgingly read poems by long-dead poets. Growth and understanding can steal up on us like thieves, but are no less meaningful for arriving without fanfare.
Noelle Allen is an English teacher at Alliance High School in Portland, Oregon. She has two grown daughters and two needy cats. She is currently enrolled in the prose certificate program at the Independent Publishing Resource Center and is grateful for the way it has reinstated writing into her daily life.