Origin Story

Every literature academic has an origin story, the book or poem that captured them & ruined them for other study. Mine’s ‘The Hollow Men.’ I found the poem in the arts volume of an encyclopedia set, age 16. I read:

‘headpiece filled with straw alas’

and thought: somehow you know me. I’ve been down on ‘relatability’, that common student criterion of aesthetic value, because it naturalizes identification. But relatability can also make us feel less alone and so more at home. It can be a discovery, not a reaffirmation.

But can you imagine some teacher recommending that poem to me? ‘You seem prematurely bitter and brittle and misanthropic: you’ll love this. Weirdo.’