The Book That Changed My Life

Susan Mitchell

Susan Mitchell was a 1992 National Book Award Finalist for Rapture.

Photo Credit: Debana Digges

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico and The Conquest of Peru (which I think of as a single work), and Milton's Paradise Lost -- these are the books that have changed my life.

As a poet, I am not interested in copying the world. I am interested in making a language, and out of that language, a world that can exist only in language. It was not only always this way for me. Whoever wrote my first book of poems, The Water Inside the Water -- well, it was not the author of my second and third books, Rapture and Erotikon, the person who read Paradise Lost one long, hot summer in Chicago when I was preparing to relocate to Middlebury College as a visiting assistant-professor. Between my first book and my next two comes a great divide, and that divide is Paradise Lost.

In Paradise Lost Milton tests the limits of English, pushing the language as close as it can come to Latin in both syntax and vocabulary and still remain English. Out of this new English -- luxurious, rough, magnificent -- Milton created a gigantic space in which the self experiences itself as thrillingly alone, but with an aloneness touched by grandeur. This epic poem is cyberspace before the invention of cyberspace. Where Dante's Hell is made of rock, hard igneous structures, Milton's is "waste and wild," burning with "darkness visible and vast," measured not in determined and predetermined dimensions, but in plunge and fall. When Lucifer is cast out of Heaven, he falls "to bottomless perdition" and when he journeys, it is "over the vast abrupt." Abrupt is normally an adjective, sometimes a verb. By making a noun of abrupt, Milton makes his own idiosyncratic language. "Space can create new worlds," Milton says in Paradise Lost, but a new language, a changed language can also create new worlds -- and a new kind of space.