'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' exhibits many qualities that came to be hailed as the trademarks of modern, and particularly modernist, writing – Modernism being an umbrella term that covers several bold and revolutionary new movements in the arts around the beginning of the twentieth century. Applied to literature, the term denotes works both of poetry and prose that dispense with traditional literary forms and conventions. In poetry this often meant getting rid of certain traditional elements like regular verse and rhyme in favour of freestyle, where no set pattern is followed. It is true that 'Prufrock' doesn’t venture too far down this road, but it is certainly edging towards it.
While the overall structure of the poem is relatively uncomplicated, in terms of content it is rather difficult to follow, and this is a characteristic of much modern, and particularly modernist writing. Modernist writers often aimed deliberately to mystify the reader, by leaving things unclear or unexplained. This is often achieved through the literary technique known as 'stream-of-consciousness', following a character’s or speaker’s train of thought which often appears disconnected, meandering, skipping from one thing to another and not arriving at any proper conclusion. This is certainly true of 'Prufrock'.
Modern and modernist writing often does not bother to fill in background information for the reader’s benefit; we are not told anything directly at all by Prufrock and we have to piece things together from his rambling thoughts as they are presented to us. The stream of consciousness of 'Prufrock' might be seen at least in part as evolving from the psychological poetry of the nineteenth century, notably the dramatic monologues of Browning; but it aims to take us even further into the mind of the speaker.
Modern writers also liked to include erudite cultural references. For example, the very title of James Joyce's ultra-Modernist and difficult novel, Ulysses, harks back to classical mythology, although the mythological references are not spelt out clearly. In 'Prufrock' we also get this, for example with the phrase ‘works and days’(29) which is the title of a work by the Ancient Greek poet Hesiod. However this reference is not really developed to any purpose. This can also be seen as part of the modernist poet’s strategy to tease and tantalize the reader, to throw out allusions and echoes of other works now and then without them really leading anywhere.
Another modern, or modernist trait in this poem is the sense of alienation in a modern urban environment. Depictions of the city are frequent in modern poetry and are usually cast in an unfavourable light. We see in this poem how Prufrock feels bored and stifled by modern urban life and routines, trapped in unending 'streets that follow like a tedious argument’(8) and the yellow fog which drapes itself over everything, and dreams of escaping to the beauty and wildness of nature, to the sea.
A final thing to consider is the overall tone and approach of the poem. The overriding tone is irony; Prufrock is fully aware of his own failings and general insignificance in the scheme of things and is all the time wryly commenting upon himself. Irony is a favourite mode of modern poets, replacing the more romantic and sentimental moods of previous poetry, particularly of the Victorian era.
The characteristics of writing poems in the modern age that are in T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" include writing in free verse. Free verse withdraws from formal structures such as regular rhyme and strict meter. More poetry today is written in the free verse form and this poem has free verse elements in it.
In this poem, though, Eliot does use rhyme quite often, however, he employs lines of varying lengths that do not ascribe to the aforementioned strict meter. This poem is a combination of formal and informal elements. It's as if Eliot was beholden to some formal rules while attempting to break away from them at the same time.
Another characteristic of this poem that is seen in today's contemporary poetry is the use of "everyday imagery" of what one would see in their community on any given day as they go about their life. This is not flowery, romantic, ethereal poetry. It is more attuned to the grittiness of everyday existence as evidenced by a line like...
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?...
There's an industrial society feel to this poem in a sense, and of a man trying to come to terms with his existence in a world that is changing on multiple fronts. The narrator of the poem is aging in an increasingly complicated world. Much modern poetry today deals with this feeling of alienation in society.