Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Eleven Books That Helped Make Me the Poet I Am

A couple of commenters on my last post asked me to list those poets, current and canonical, whom I consider inconsequential but of undeserved reputation. I can see nothing useful in such an exercise in negativity, nor can I see it bringing me any practical benefits; quite the opposite, in fact. W.H. Auden said that he never reviewed books he didn't think were good, because, given that there was only so much public attention to go around, he didn't believe in wasting it on work that would hopefully wither away of its own accord. In any case, my list would doubtless be different from someone else's, and without the kind of explanation and commentary I have neither the time nor the energy to spend on things I don't care about, it would amount to nothing more than a set of personal opinions (on about the same level as listing my preferences and aversions in food), rather than reasoned arguments. I thought that it might be more useful to list a few of the books that most influenced me as a developing writer and briefly discuss what each one offered me. This piece is adapted from an essay I have contributed to the forthcoming anthology Poet's Bookshelf 2, to be published by Barnwood Press. A description of the first volume of Poet's Bookshelf can be found here. I write about the books roughly in the order in which I read them.

I won’t attempt in this little essay to list even a fraction of my favorite books, either past or current. Some of my favorite poets, like Yeats, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, have not to my knowledge been strong influences on my work. Some of the writers who most shaped me, like James Wright, are not people I much read anymore. (Some of my strong early influences are things I hesitate to admit having ever read, like the poetry of Erica Jong and Alice Walker, though I’m curious what I would think of Jong’s poetry today.) There have been many writers since those formative days who have been important influences, like Michael Palmer, Ann Lauterbach, Paul Celan, and Osip Mandelstam, but I came to them as a mature writer, which engenders a different kind of encounter. I doubt that I’ll ever again be under the spell of a writer in the way that I was enthralled by these early loves.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Hart Crane, White Buildings
Louise Bogan, The Blue Estuaries
James Wright, Collected Poems
Marilyn Hacker, Presentation Piece
W.H. Auden, The English Auden
Louise Glück, Descending Figure
Jean Valentine, The Messenger
Laura Mullen, The Surface
Jorie Graham, The End of Beauty

I’ve probably written too many times about the impact that Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had one me. It was the first poem I ever read, and it made me want to write poetry, made me want to be a poet (these aren’t the same thing). Eliot had taken my mundane misery and made it shapely, meaningful, beautiful, even. I wanted to be able to do that for myself, and to create things that would have the effect on others that poem had on me. I read all of Eliot soon after (I bought The Waste Land and Other Poems in the Walden Books at the Macon Mall). I didn’t understand all of it, but I experienced it, a hollow man traveling through Eliot’s wasteland as if it were my own. But I quickly discovered that while I could admire Eliot, I couldn’t emulate him, not without sounding like a parody of him.

In Wallace Stevens’ chilly, distanced intimacies and sinuous, carefully measured sentences, in his intermingling of intellect and emotion finding form, I found a mode that I could emulate, a model for the kind of poems I wanted to write. No matter how intense the emotional pressure, his lines never lost their poise: I aspired to that composure, to compose that way. Stevens’ embodiment of idea and feeling in images and landscapes like those of “The Snow Man” and “The Auroras of Autumn” is an ideal toward which I still aim.

The psychological landscapes of Auden’s early poetry entranced me, the loneliness and desire embodied in its craggy limestone wastes, desolate cityscapes, and cryptic vignettes of mysterious wars in which opposing soldiers steal moments of intimacy during lulls in the fighting. Edward Mendelson describes them very well: “These first poems often have the air of gnomic fragments; they seem to be elements of some…private myth whose individual details never quite resolve themselves into a unified narrative….The elusiveness and indecipherability of the early poems are part of their meaning; they enact the isolation they describe.” The poems’ overtly homosexual undertones (the paradoxical formulation is intentional) seduced me as well. Love was a secret agent operating in the shadows and interstices, always in danger of being exposed and betrayed.

Hart Crane’s extravagances of language and vision also enthralled me: he wrote poems that were unabashedly Poetry, utterly unlike everyday speech. His poems’ passion thrilled me, all the more so because it was the passion of a man for other men. That Crane sought transcendence in the flesh of other men made sense: other people seemed both to inhabit and to own their bodies, while I always felt a stranger to mine. The oceanic rush of Crane’s words transfigured emotions into “The silken skilled transmemberment of song,” proposing voyages I longed to embark upon, by means of which I could transcend my feelings without surrendering them, and end up in the arms of some beloved. Perhaps I could even conjure him up out of the luxuriance of my words.

Louise Bogan showed me the possibilities of a bitter lyricism like that of Sir Thomas Wyatt, disenchanted and yet enchanting in its lithe and lute-like music: “Loneliness was the heart within your side.” Her commitment to what she called the stripped, still lyric was a model and a reproach to my tendency to talk in poems; poems were “to be sung on the water.” Her poems were all songs for the last act, immortalizing the moment after passion, the eyes opening to a world of wonders now shown to be false or at best lost: "Now that I have your heart by heart, I see." That too felt true to me, who had never known passion at all but could only imagine it as out of reach.

James Wright’s deep image epiphanies, a man lying in a hammock surrounded by the flourishing natural world that reminds one of one’s own insignificance to the point that one realizes the waste of one’s life, floating among lonely animals, longing in fear and hope and hopelessness for the red spider who is God, showed me (along with my readings in Imagist poetry, H.D. in particular) the power and intensity of brevity and concision, the way moments can open up into exhilaration or desolation, the everyday can blossom into revelation: “My bones turn to dark emeralds.”

Louise Glück’s spare, lapidary poems contained so much passion in their restraint; they created a mythic world where pain was raised to a higher, nobler level, mere suffering transfigured into grief. The poems in Descending Figure seemed almost chiseled out of the suffocating, intractable mass of silence. To have been able to wrest them out of the void was a victory in itself. Their aspiration toward an impossible perfection, a finality of utterance as if one’s words could transubstantiate themselves into the Word, inspired and humbled me: “it is the same need to perfect,/of which death is the mere byproduct.”

Marilyn Hacker’s work demonstrated the way that formal poise and stylistic elegance could be combined with direct engagement with the materials of everyday life and with a range of diction from graffiti to sophisticated literary allusion. Her poetry affirmed that it was okay to write what a friend called flashy poems, poems that were unashamedly poetry and not just lineated anecdotes. Her work also confirmed that poems should be heard and not just seen. Under her influence I wrote exclusively in traditional form for about a year (my sophomore year in college), and my ear is much the better for it.

Jean Valentine’s poems exuded a cool but impassioned sense of mystery, and revealed how much could be said by so much left out. Her poems absorbed their occasions into themselves, leaving behind the luminous residue of event, these numinous tokens left behind, ordinary things illuminated by a scrupulously loving attention: “and trees paths stars this earth/how will I think of them.”

The infatuated yet skeptical music of Laura Mullen's poems sang itself to me for years. They embodied an almost perfect and perfectly precarious balance between what critic Charles Altieri calls lyricism and lucidity, enchantment and disenchantment: beauty and pathos and the awareness of all the things they won’t let you say. I, who longed for the raptures of romance but knew already that romance couldn’t always be trusted, aspired to walk that fine line, staying “Up all night for beauty you could use.”

Jorie Graham’s work, like Stevens’, made ideas shapely, and sensuous, and made the numinous bloom out of daily landscapes. Like Stevens, she demonstrated that one not only could but must think in poems, and to let the poem think. Thought in her poems was not conclusions but process, the flight of geese overhead a syntax to be parsed and explicated. Her exploration and excavation of myth and cultural narrative in The End of Beauty resonated with my desire to get inside and under myths, to find out what lay hidden on their underside, the other side of myth.

I hope that it may at least prove interesting to talk about some of the writers who have most shaped me.


RC said...

Just an innocent observation,Reginald,but that's a very white poetic upbringing,though maybe common for ethnic poets.

csperez said...

hi reginald...

this list is a wonderful resource...thank you for taking the time. i will check them out!


Lawrence LaRiviere White said...

Thanks for the great list. Of the many remarkable things in it, there's the early Auden. He's fantistically popular, at least in comparison to other dead 20th century poets, yet it's the later, speechy work that folks read. The disjunction between the popularity of the talkier poems and the obscurity (in both senses) of the early poem makes those early poems even more marvelous.

I too read them as I was just beginning to write poetry, & despite my heterosexuality, they also spoke to me of the fraught mysteries of desire.

Anonymous said...

Great list.

Anonymous said...