it’s 1962 March 28
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird
It’s the middle of February last year, and I’m sitting in Suzanne’s office with a tuna sandwich on my lap. It’s the first of our lunchtime exchanges. We would rotate: one week she’d teach me about poetry, the next I’d teach her some Arabic.
I talk a bit about my hesitations—how I never felt like I understood poetry, how since high school I typically found it so daunting. At some point she hands me a copy of Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved” and has me read it aloud. It doesn’t take long for me to stop and laugh; but the most important thing is that I stopped.
Poetry taught me its very first lesson as I sat reading that stanza of Hikmet: the poem was telling me to slow down, for God’s sake. As an academic historian, I had grown accustomed to words whizzing by like a rush-hour express train. Lines added up to paragraphs, which needed to be distilled—scanned and absorbed for keywords and main ideas—as efficiently as possible; for on the other side of that page only lay more paragraphs, more keywords, more main ideas. Reading for me had become an athletic event; to read was to make a beeline for the author’s argument.
That day in Suzanne’s office I remembered what it was like to savor a word, a line. To take a full moment to consider a choice of punctuation or capitalization. Reading it aloud only redoubled my appreciation for the manifold micro-choices the poet made with each line, each sound. For me, I soon realized, reading poetry was going to be a rediscovery of the slow, a celebration of those of language’s riches that can only be appreciated fully if you are forever prepared to stop and allow words their breath.
I also loved Hikmet’s easy, avuncular sensibility. I became obsessed with how clever and wry the opening of this poem was—how Hikmet laughs at himself first for stumbling upon some bit of beauty, then quickly laughs at himself again for what he offers us in trying to capture it. I never knew that poetry could be so funny, even self-deprecating. I was hooked, and it was not long after discovering this poem with Suzanne that I started to write poems of my own. I never knew I loved Nazim Hikmet poems, and I never knew I could love writing my own verse. Most of all, I never knew poetry loved me.
BIO: “Matthew Ellis is an assistant professor at Sarah Lawrence College, where he teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics. He lives in Inwood, Manhattan.”