Reading Lessons

When I was seventeen I bought a slim collection of T. S. Eliot’s poems. Up to that point I had read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, a bit of poetry, and had begun to dabble in what is now called literary fiction. I remember distinctly the moment I read this passage from his poem “Preludes”: I am moved by fancies that are curled Around these images and cling: The notion of an infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing.

I thought, “Oh, you can do that. You can be both conversational and musical; both simple and profound.” I felt as if I were a middle distance runner who had just learned that the mile had in fact been run in under four minutes.

Of course I imitated him. What he was doing looked like fun and I wanted to try it. This was not a particularly satisfying experience. I thought that by imitating him I would begin to follow the path I believed his poetry had just illuminated. Yet my imitation sounded like someone describing a tourist attraction with which his parents had become enamored before he was born. No matter how faithful my imitation, I would never match the actual love that so attracted me to that which I was imitating. Eventually I would have to visit this place myself.

It’s always a bit daunting to visit someplace yourself, having glimpsed it through others. You know even before you arrive it will be different for you. The door Eliot had opened for me was not leading anywhere he had been. Even as I went looking for where he had been I could not find it. What I did find was quite interesting, at least to me, though I sometimes cheapen it because I am the one who discovered it.

It is not always easy to live with the mystery of what other people love. It is not always easy to trust what you cannot see but what nonetheless animates everything around you. Life will never be answered from outside. We might wish sometimes that love would limit itself to what we understand, but it will not. It seeks all forms. In imitation you reach for the heart of another, craving the warmth already pulsing in your own hand.

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