My first exposure to the fiction of Flannery O’Connor made my jaw drop. It revealed a world at once familiar and comfortable – the red clay banks and piney woods of rural Georgia, land of my forebears and my childhood – and at the same time startling, even frightening.
It was as if some rare and splendid plumed bird had alit on the pine-fringed Fall Line of the Appalachian Mountains, throwing an enormous and ominous shadow as it cast about its unfamiliar perch like Quetzalcoatl, the fabled avatar of the Spanish explorer Cortez conquering Mexico.
The first work of hers I read, a short story called “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” was of course prose, not poetry. Yet it made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Even when “recollected in tranquility” (Wordsworth’s definition of art’s pity and terror), the story was impossible to describe using mere words, and much more physical in its effect.
I thought of Emily Dickinson’s famous definition of a poem: “If . . . it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry,” she wrote to a friend in 1870. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
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