Tuesday, January 10, 2006


[In his book Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, Kenneth Koch describes the development of what he calls his "poetry base" -- simply, his "knowledge of the language of poetry." I just asked my students to write about the development of their poetry "bases." Here's my homework.]

I was attuned to songs from very early on, thanks to my father's dedication in exposing me to jazz. When I was three or four I was listening to Joe Turner and Anita O'Day, but it was their voices, not their words, that made an impression on me (the same with Erroll Garner's voice at the end of Concert by the Sea). My first remembered awareness of poetry involves rhymes from the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten eras. My mother used to sing to me:

Michael's a good boy
He is the best boy
He can run and jump and play
He can ride a bike.
In kindergarten, I learned a little rhyme about an imaginary family:
There's mother and father
And baby that makes three
And sister and brother
There are five in our family.
I don’t remember reading any poetry in elementary school, but I remember writing a poem in fourth grade about winter. Where did that come from? It was published in the school paper and now sits in my house in a frame that my grandmother bought for it. I bought a book of Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems when I was ten or eleven, and I remember how much I liked the title of the poem "To E----": mysterious! "Eldorado" was another poem that struck me: it seemed to belong to no time or place. These poems did not move me though to any further investigations of poetry. And high school was a waste land when it came to poetry; I can't remember reading a single poem (and I remember many specifics of my high-school reading). I know that I had a glib contempt for Deep Meaning, as my friends and I called it, though that didn't seem to stop me from scrutinizing Beatles lyrics for clues about Paul's death.

A freshman poetry course in college helped to make up for what never happened in high school; it at least made me realize that poetry was more than the precious, flowery thing I assumed it was. That recognition was largely a matter of discovering what was in the back of the anthology -- some contemporary poetry, including Gregory Corso's "Marriage," the first poem I can remember reading that really spoke in terms familiar from ordinary life. It was interesting to me that Corso was reported to have behaved very badly when he was on campus a year or two before for a reading. People were still talking about it. There was also a poem by Raymond Patterson about the death of Malcolm X, "At That Moment," which helped me understand -- and even get excited about -- the idea of metaphor. In this freshman course we could memorize poems, or passages, for extra credit, and I had (like everyone else) a blue book with my efforts -- five lines here, eight lines there (for some reason we had to write rather than recite).

It wasn’t until my junior year of college that things took off, in courses devoted to 17th-century literature and modern poetry (I thought it would be interesting to take them together). It was really a matter of the professors teaching these courses -- one an old eccentric (Paul Memmo), and the other a highly animated assistant prof (Jim Doyle). Each projected a reverence for the possibilities of language and imagination, and I, like a number of my comrades in English, wanted in a way to be Jim Doyle -- to read poetry with the same intensity of attention. These professors were inspiring models then and now.

So far virtually all my reading was British, in a deeply Anglophile English department. It wasn’t until I started work on a doctorate that I began to read modern American poetry -- Williams, Stevens, and others, but I didn’t really get it. Around the same time, I began reading Charles Bukowski, who for me (and so many other readers) was a gateway poet -- the one that got me interested in other much stronger and more addictive poets, those identified with the New American Poetry of Donald Allen's anthology. I bought Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and never got beyond "The Day Lady Died." Around this time I began a subscription to the American Poetry Review and found myself loathing the contents and concluding that there wasn’t much of interest in contemporary American poetry.

It was only after finishing my doctorate that I realized that what I loathed was not contemporary American poetry but the version of it that had been made available to me. My eyes were opened via an anthology edited by Andrei Codrescu, Up Late: American Poetry Since 1970. I bought it on a whim and found myself completely taken with poetry that was beautiful, funny, odd, opaque, and without the prettiness and pretension of what I was reading in APR. Up Late was followed by two anthologies of language-poetry and then by countless books of recent and contemporary American poetry. I began to go backwards too -- finding my way to French poets who were crucial for some Americans (Apollinaire, Cendrars, Jacob, Reverdy) and becoming more and more caught up in reading Homer and Sappho (in multiple translations). So my poetry base at this point has many strata, the result of some good luck and some self-reliance, all haphazardly overlapping here and there.

And that's my story.

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