Friday, March 6, 2009

"you just go on your nerve"

on some of the poetry blogs i read, they've been listing the "top books of poetry that convinced you that poetry was important." i'm all for lists because usually there's something on each one that i hadn't considered or heard about or read. here's my list of books from high school & just beyond(pre-new college)that galvanized me into wanting to BE a poet:

frank o'hara
james wright

i need to add that this list is based on my p'cola years, 1970-1975. high school & the two years before i went to new college. i'll put up another list of college influences tomorrow.

i've always agreed w/eliot's claim that shakespear & dante divide the world in two. & yeah, i suppose dante cribbed the descent into hell from homer but who cares? the sheer force of his imagination in the divine comedy is so powerful that it forces everyone else to the margins. creating those worlds & peopling it is amazing enough but doing it in terza rima makes it a tour de force.

rimbaud was a punk, a talented one, but a punk just the same. there's something about the imaginations of teenage kids that makes over the top seem unimpressive. they take it even further. the illuminations was just such a production. wildly inventive, richly worded, fiercely imaginative. i ate this up in high school.

eliot & pound were pretty much the same for me(tho i understood the cantos less than i understood prufrock). erudition was the key element here. eliot ended by taking his erudtion into the academy; pound ended up w/his in the penitentiary. guess who i preferred?

bill williams is another story altogether. asphodel astonished me. it was the painful, honest kind of love poem i suspected love to be about but didn't KNOW first hand. dr williams was a smart guy too but he didn't wear his learning on his sleeves. i think he & pound(more than eliot)really opened the gates for me. i truly believe that the "pound era" was the "pound/williams" era, in that the innovations each introduced have influenced almost every major poet coming after them.

berryman's dream songs were so much fun. i was drawn to his fractured syntax, his playful use of punctuation, his two characters: henry & mr bones. highly disiplined poetry too(despite the appearances). it was no surprize to find out he knew shakespear backwards & forward. you can hear it in the poetry. berryman was from the last generation of poets who weren't subsumed into the teaching academy. some of them made efforts to fit in(money being the main reason. one thinks of delmore schwartz)but most were doomed to fail as teachers. i did a presentation at uva taking howard singerman's idea of the impact of institutionalization on the artist(in howard's case, he wrote about the bauhaus)& his art. it's something to think about, esp since artists didn't start teaching until early-mid 20th century.

the first poem by john ashbery i ever read was "lithuanian dance band." it was in an early issue(i mean REALLY early)of american poetry review(they even botched the publication & had to re-print it in their next issue. they left off the first line). i was smitten. i don't think any other poet ever connected w/me the way ashbery did. there's a casualness(from auden, i think)& a playfulness(from the french, i think)& a melancholy(from being gay, i think)& a joy of language(from o'hara, i think)that spoke to me in some fundamental way. his poetry has changed somewhat over the years; he's less direct & more playful. he's considered a major poet(meaning that you either love him or hate him but you have an opinion of him regardless)but he's continued to produce interesting poetry. i met him in gainesville at a writers conference. his reading style then was awful as far as i was concerned but it seems like his newer poetry is being written w/that style in mind now(see below). his poems now seem like something you'd overhear spoken on a subway, w/o knowing ANY of the context of what's being said.

i stole frank o'hara's collected poems from the uwf library. i'd read an essay by marjorie perloff about him. it focused(i think)on "the day lady died" & blew me away. as did a lot of o'hara's poetry. o'hara was like that brilliant, loquacious, drama queen gay friend we all had in college(actually i had more than one). at the time, all we had in p'cola was nicki & dondi. i didn't make the connections using them but once i got to new college, things became clear. o'hara uses the erudition from pound/eliot & turns it into gossip. he uses bill williams use of plain spoken language & his lyric sense of love & queens it up. he fractures syntax, ignores punctuation, & lays out jazz-like improvisations in language. it's funny that kerouac hated him. frank was just as hip as any beat. his sin was being gay & he wrote & saw & listened & felt everything from that very specific(&, at the time, problematic)point of view.

wright's collected poems was another book i stole from uwf. it's funny to have james wright right after frank o'hara. their poetry & their aesthetics couldn't be more different. wright had a near haiku-like quality in his best poems(which were the later poems in the "collected"). the midwest subject matter couldn't be further from o'hara's frenetic nyc but there's a melancholy here too, a frostian sense of mortality & loss. very plain spoken language but always ready for a simple shift that opens to revelation. i can't really say what attracted me to him except that. that's probably enough.

allen ginsberg's kaddish was what got me hooked, not howl. howl was the big bang but kaddish was poetry to me. there's the jewish thing, the mother thing, the death thing, the guilt thing. that's a pretty rich field to work. his language was always informed by the measures of the old testament prophets, sometimes wild & raving, sometimes deliberate & funereal. & his poetry took me back to our great original oracle: whitman. i never tried to write like ginsberg but i listen to him anyway. that was a lot like listening to america itself which is something poets do.

in my senior year of high school i wrote a big poem about a relationship based on the seasons(yeah, original idea, right?). i tried my best to copy rimbaud, eliot, pound, williams, & berryman. as far as i know, i never tried to write like ginsberg or james wright or dante. ashbery & o'hara were major influences in college when i started writing poetry again.

i didn't really read wallace stevens until college. that changed everything.

here's ashbery reading a later poem. it's an excellent video.

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