I could not fathom poetry until I went to college. 

I grew up devouring words, but they were always words arranged in prose. Even without metrical structure, I could still hear and feel the rhythm of language, the cadence and lyricism. 


But poetry as a form always seemed beyond my grasp, as if it were written in a language I had partially learned but could not achieve full fluency. Of course, I learned poetry in school and even had to quote the requisite “Whose woods these are I think I know…” before my elementary school class. I tended to read poetry as if it were a telegraph. “I sometimes hold it half a sin. Stop. To put in words the grief I feel. Stop. For words, like Nature, half reveal. Stop. And half conceal the Soul within. Stop” (In Memoriam A.H.H., Tennyson). I could read poetry in only the basic sense, a struggling, novice linguist translating one phrase at a time. 


It was in the second semester of my freshman year of college when it happened. The South was in the grip of winter, when the cold is wet and lingering. I was sitting in my little windowless office on the top floor of the oldest building (which has since collapsed) on campus, bundled from nose to fingertips to toes. Between learning the Krebs cycle and finding the tangent lines of polar curves, I was working on my latest literature assignment:  reading T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock


I imagine cryptologists have this moment of breathless euphoria and sharp disbelief when they ascertain the key to the code they are attempting to solve. Perhaps they stumbled upon it by accident, perhaps it was hard won by tireless figuring, but whatever the case may be, what is before them is suddenly decipherable when once it was incomprehensible. The riddle has been unraveled, the enigma untangled. 


And the pieces come together to form a whole.


My nose was red, my fingertips numb, and my scarf was pulled up so high my glasses were beginning to fog. But I read Prufrock and the words finally meant something, and they created a vivid image in my mind. That first stanza unlocked some crucial perception within me I’d spent years missing, and I could then navigate the hitherto labyrinth that was poetry.


Perhaps I was too distracted to pay attention to the form of the poem and instead read the words themselves rather than the shape of them, but poetry suddenly was not a disjointed collection of words, and the line breaks didn’t leave me feeling as if something meaningful had been severed and I was floundering to grasp what was missing. It was not until later that I learned the poignance and power of those breaks. But in that moment, I felt as if I had discovered something vital. 


I write fiction, but I still maintain an awe over poetry and a love for it. And these words still move me:


Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit. 

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