Each day in April, on account of National Poetry Month, I tweeted a tidbit about a poem that means something to me personally (not just that I admire or recognize the greatness of).
It’s funny how often in a conversation with a stranger (or in last week’s case, a barista) in which it comes up that you write poetry the stranger (or barista) says something about not knowing anything about poetry and not understanding it at all, but then a few beats or a bit later, inevitably, the stranger (or barista) remembers a poem they really liked. In a high school class, say, or from college, or heard read at a wedding or funeral that stuck with them. Every time it seems the first reaction is backing away, but then there’s always at least one that they remember, that means something to them. Does poetry just have the worst marketing ever? That everyone’s first reaction is to back away? (Until they remember there was at least one time they didn’t have to?)
Anyway, I thought maybe I’d see some style thread running through them all, other than a basic love of words, but I think that analysis might be for someone farther removed to pull. But here’s how those 30 stand in relationship to me.
Poems totally and inextricably tied in my brain to the specific time in life in which I first read them:
“Fog” (Carl Sandburg)
Middle school/early high school creative writing classes in which I endeavored over and over and over to write something super imagistic just like those cat feet. And not a line longer if I could help it.
“Domination of Black” (Wallace Stevens)
Summer between high school and college in a hotel room in Scotland which had an elaborate mural of cherubs painted on the ceiling, hearing, for the first time, from the grounds upon which an ostentation of peacocks wandered freely, a peacock’s cry, and having to be told what it was, all right immediately after, like seconds after, reading “And I remembered the cry of the peacocks” in Wallace Stevens’ “Domination of Black” from a book given to me by my high school rowing coach for graduation. (That is likely to be the most specific first-time-reading-it memory I’ll ever have.)
“Demolition” (Mark Doty)
College. Everything about learning about poetry, about learning how to read poetry to learn from poetry, about reading contemporary poetry, started for me while reading that book.
“The Steeple-Jack” (Marianne Moore)
College. Everything about learning about mid-century poetry in college = tied up with Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. Though a crucial difference between those two is that while I like and respect Marianne Moore poems, Bishop I just love.
“Sonnet 29: When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes]” (William Shakespeare)
Shakespeare sonnets = high school English classes. (I am not alone in this, I am sure.)
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath
You can’t say Plath or Sexton without putting me instantly back in high school reading them while listening to Ani DiFranco and Tori Amost and the Indigo Girls. And you can’t say the one without me thinking of the other. And this is despite the fact that, unlike say, Sandburg, who I still like (but different poems than I liked in 9th grade), I don’t really like Sexton or Plath anymore, and I can hardly even remember specific poems by either of them, despite the fact that I read both incessantly in 10th-11th grade.
Middle school, then high school, then freshman/sophomore years of college. In middle school it was The House on Mango Street, which was one of the first really beautiful & cool things I remember being assigned to read in an English class. In high school it was the Rodrigo poems, and “For a Southern Man” because that was the sort of woman I wanted to be. And then after I spent a semester in Greece it was poems like “Hydra Coming Down in Rain.”
“After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” (Galway Kinnell)
I’d read “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps” (one of the better poem titles out there, no?) before but it always makes me think of this writers panel held at Connecticut College when I was there, with Kinnell, Tobias Wolff and Joy Williams. They were the first real “real writers” I’d seen. Tobias Wolff told us examples of things that really happened that couldn’t go into autobiography because no one would believe them (truth is stranger than fiction lesson illustrated brilliantly). Joy Williams had an actual physical rolodex of quotations she had brought with her so that when she answered a question she could quote someone else about the subject (as all writers like to do) accurately. And Kinnell, even though he knew it by heart, asked someone in the audience for a copy of the poem to read from because, he said, if he recited it wrong we’d all be so disappointed in him.
“Listen to the Must’nts” (Shel Silverstein)
The earliest poet I remember, past nursery rhymes, and up there in importance with the early formation of my love of words with Roald Dahl’s The BFG.
Poem which I love for reasons other than the poem itself:
“The Second Coming” (William Butler Yeats)
I got to Yeats through Joni Mitchell (sorry, Yeats! And sorry also every English teacher I ever had), her song “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” But it was also, “The Second Coming” was, an important early it’s-obscure-I-don’t-get-it-but-I-still-like-it poem for me.
“The Man-Moth” (Elizabeth Bishop)
“The Man-Moth” gives permission to think something odd and follow it (your imagination) all the way, to delight in what you delight in no matter what it is, and to notice (“The Man-Moth” being famously inspired by a newspaper mis-print of “mammoth”).
Poems that gripped me just right from the very first read, and that I read over and over and over, and which led me to all these poets’ other poems:
“The Thorn Merchant” (Yusef Komunyakaa) — Everyone should have a copy of Neon Vernacular on their shelf
“Bad Boats” (Laura Jensen) — Jensen’s almost a shibboleth. Mention liking her (and when she’s mentioned, “Bad Boats” is mentioned) and it’s instant recognition that you and me, we can talk poems. (John W. Marshall at Open Books in Seattle is the one who recommended I read her and damn was he ever right.)
“Heat” (Denis Johnson) — “are you serious?” — I adore that gesture in this poem.
“Snow Leopards at the Denver Zoo” (William Matthews) — he’s not the flashy word play I usually go in for, but Matthews is just. so. good.
“The Broken Home” (James Merrill) — one of the few poems I heard before I read (on a CD someone copied for me) and fell in love with that way.
“Dream Song 29” [There sat down once a thing on Henry’s heart] (John Berryman) — liked the Dream Songs a ton for a damn long time before I understood them in the slightest.
“Clear in the September Light” (Mark Strand)
I picked up this book because Louise Gluck, at her U of Portland reading, said that she was reading it over and over. Recommendations: so essential to exploring poetry. (In this vein I recommend Poets Picking Poets and Dark Horses, btw.)
“Black Labrador” (David Young)
David was one of my professors at Oberlin, excellent teacher, a wonderful poet and editor, and an important person, though I bet he doesn’t know that, in the formation of my ideas of what a writer is supposed to be like, as a person. In, you know, real life. Which is something every writer does, trying to figure out what to be like in person, in parallel (or overrunning, or encroaching, or leading the way, or blocking, or after the fact) with the trying to figure out the writing.
“Sestina: Like” (A.E. Stallings)
Her formal form + colloquial tone continually astounds.
“Morning of Drunkenness” (Arthur Rimbaud, trans. John Ashbery)
Because I’ve written poems riffing on Rimbaud, and read quite a bit about him, but not necessarily because I think his poems are amazing. I did not read him at a time of life (high school) when he would really have gotten to me. Friends assure me listening to AC/DC is the same; if you don’t hear it when you’re 16 you can maybe appreciate it but you’ll never “get it.”
“The Windhover” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Such word-play! Such flights of words!
And last but not least, my all-time favorite poem, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The End of March“, because of oh absolutely everything it is and does, including without caveat the sentimental slightly cheesy bits.