Line from T.S. Eliot poem intrigues literature buffs

Graffiti writer paints poetic on Carnegie Library


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The stilted letters have a childish quality about them, but the words they compose -- "I wish I were a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas" -- are anything but juvenile.

The quotation, which appeared on the Carnegie Library in Oakland earlier this week, is attributed to one J. Alfred Prufrock. Unfortunately for city police, the gentleman is fictional.

The words are borrowed from T.S. Eliot, and the alleged writer is the narrator of one of Mr. Eliot's earliest poems: an anthem of modernity and alienation titled "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

It's not the first time a tagger has taken a line from Bartlett's.

In a more esoteric example, a mysterious Thomas Pynchon fanatic spray-painted allusions to the postmodern novel "The Crying of Lot 49" all over the University of California at Santa Barbara's campus last November.

"Graffiti has evolved," said Marc Schiller, who runs a popular Web site devoted to street art, woostercollective.com. "A lot of tags and stencils are making references to classic literature or poetry."

Now is a particularly apt moment for the mingling of high culture and grit; London's Tate Modern museum is currently housing a graffiti exhibit, and last Thursday, the same day local graffiti writer Daniel Montano was sentenced to 21/2 to 5 years in state prison, the Carnegie Art Museum hosted a talk with Barry McGee, a former graffiti writer from San Francisco.

While few would claim the messy words on the Carnegie Library are anything but vandalism, the tagger's peculiar choice of message has stirred the whimsy of the city's literature buffs.

In fact, it was Amy Ergler -- a former English literature major and a film and audio librarian at the Carnegie -- who first recognized the words as Mr. Eliot's, not Mr. Prufrock's. (The quotation is also slightly altered from Mr. Eliot's version, which reads "I should have been," not "I wish I were.")

Duquesne University English Professor Linda Kinnahan, whose interest was sparked when she saw the story on television, said the ragged claws are often read as an image of fragmentation and disconnection.

"He might have felt alienated," she said, when asked why the tagger picked the particular quotation. "It's an expression of feeling not at home in the world, perhaps."

It is not likely coincidental that the quotation appeared on a library: meta-allusions are common in graffiti.

"Site is everything," said Mr. Schiller.

The vandal left more than one surprise on the library. Before it was removed, a tag on the front steps of the library read "for freedom enter here." Near the Eliot quotation is another sentence: "This is not a good way to handle my problems."

The latter two tags have not yet been removed, said Suzanne Thinnes, the library's spokeswoman.

"We need to get someone with a powerwasher in here in the next couple of days," she said.

She could not estimate what the cost to the library will be.


Vivian Nereim can be reached at vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1489.


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