"Because I know I shall not know"

I have read poetry most of my life, it seems. I was a quiet Danish teenage girl who read Lord Byron and Rupert Brooke in the school library, swooning over the bold romanticism of the poets' words and lives. When I was sixteen or seventeen, I bought a slim volume of poetry. Away from school, I discovered Sir Philip Sidney, Lord Tennyson and DH Lawrence. Poetry became an escape from the clutter and clatter of my everyday life. And, yes, I romanticised poetry. Then I began University and one morning between classes I was catching up with my reading. That is when I encountered The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot and, although I normally try to avoid hyperbolic blanket statements, that poem effing changed my life. It was like language streaming straight in my veins and I felt drunk on poetry for the first, but not the last, time.

Let me confess: I have a special place in my heart (and brain) for High Modernism. Earlier I described High Modernism as

"that vast array of strange and deliberately disconcerting art forms which emerged in the Western part of the world around 1908-ish and which petered out towards the end of the 1930s. Shklovsky’s definition of остранение (ostranenie or ‘defamiliarisation’) describes my favourite art works so splendidly: they unsettle the readers/listeners/spectators by forcing them to acknowledge the artifice of art (and thereby making a clean break with the naturalist tradition of art)."

This is an intellectual sort of enjoyment: I enjoy the game of making meaning; I derive pleasure from understanding patterns emerging from seeming chaos. I really like poets like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein for these reasons. I have to work to get at the ideas behind the poems. TS Eliot fits in with all this, of course, but I also derive a very raw emotional pleasure from his poetry.

For me, Eliot's poetry is about understanding life. It is about finding your own way between one word and the next, between one moment and the next. It is about being intellectually curious, acknowledging how that is both a gift and a curse, and finding methods of dealing with this. It is about fragments and meta-narratives. It is about hope and loss of hope. It is about being human. It is tough, raw, almost unbearable and yet so .. beautiful.

My favourite Eliot poem is probably Ash Wednesday (from which the title is taken). An odd choice for an agnostic woman, perhaps, but it marks the transition from Eliot the High Modernist to Eliot the Religious Poet. I have always been drawn towards liminality.