10. Oscar Williams, ed., An Anthology of British and American Verse (Mentor, 19[?])
Found this on the bookshelf at the Goodwill thrift store sometime in the late seventies. It had little pictures of the poets on the insides of the covers. I remember being fascinated by the idea of meter, and spending a long time trying to figure out which poems were iambic and which weren’t. The ones that looked like they were but actually weren’t frustrated me at first, then intrigued me further. I liked the idea that form could be merely hinted at and still be “formal.” I remember too spending a long time on those terrible, overwrought, clunky George Barker poems for some reason.
9. Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (City Lights, 1956)
I can’t remember how I first found out about the Beats. I read On the Road, Naked Lunch, A Coney Island of the Mind, The Happy Birthday of Death, anything I could get my hands on. I had a hard time getting into Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, which later became a favorite; conversely, I can’t read Ferlinghetti at all now, and I loved Coney Island back then. Ginsberg has been a constant, though. When I finally got to see him read, in Larkspur in the early ’80s, it was like witnessing the Buddha on earth. I treasure my tattered old signed copy of Kaddish.
8. The Portable Whitman (Viking Penguin, 1977)
A friend loaned me this, figuring rightly that if I liked Ginsberg I’d dig it as well. He was right. I went overboard, reciting “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” drunk at a toga party. Yes, the friend was kind of a frat type. It was Modesto. There was nothing to do but drink and get stoned and seek elevation in anthologized verse. With another friend, I spent long nights tromping through orchards discussing The Waste Land. Neither of us understood the first thing about it. It was just another assortment of bitching eerie riffs. It could as well have been Pink Floyd.
7. Mark Strand, ed., The Contemporary American Poets: American Poetry since 1940 (Mentor, 1969)
I still have this! Another thrift-shop find. It was my first acquaintance with Ashbery, O’ Hara, Koch, Schuyler, Olson, Creeley, Le Roi Jones; it provided no context for them, however, and they were packed in right next to Wilbur, Jarrell, Roethke, Lowell, Hecht, Kinnell, Levine (lots of men mainly, on either side). One would never know from this collection that there were such things as a New York School or the New Criticism or Black Mountain or academic verse. And looking at it now, it still seems that Justice and Ashbery, Merrill and Schuyler, etc. have much in common. Some gems here: Denise Levertov’s “The Springtime”:
The red eyes of rabbits
aren’t sad. No one passes
the sad golden village in a barge
any more. The sunset
will leave it alone. If the
curtains hang askew
it is no one’s fault.
Around and around and around
everywhere the same sound
of wheels going, and things
growing older, growing
silent. If the dogs
bark to each other
all night, and their eyes
flash red, that’s
nobody’s business. They have
a great space of dark to
bark across. The rabbits
will bare their teeth at
the spring moon.
Weldon Kees’ “Round”:
“Wondrous life!” cried Marvell at Appleton House.
Renan admired Jesus Christ “wholeheartedly.”
But here dried ferns keep falling to the floor,
And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. Royal Cortissoz is dead,
A blow to the Herald-Tribune. A closet mouse
Rattles the wrapper on the breakfast food. Renan
Admired Jesus Christ “wholeheartedly.”
Flaps like a worn-out blind. Cézanne
Would break out in the quiet streets of Aix
And shout, “Le monde, c’est terrible!” Royal
Cortissoz is dead. And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. The soil
In which the ferns are dying needs more Vigoro.
There is no twilight on the moon, no mist or rain,
No hail or snow, no life. Here in this house
Dried ferns keep falling to the floor, a mouse
Rattles the wrapper on the breakfast food. Cézanne
Would break out in the quiet streets and scream. Renan
Admired Jesus Christ “wholeheartedly.” And something inside my head
Flaps like a worn-out blind. Royal Cortissoz is dead.
There is no twilight on the moon, no hail or snow.
One notes fresh desecrations of the portico.
“Wondrous life!” cried Marvell at Appleton House.
Tom Clark’s “Sonnet”:
The orgasm completely
Takes the woman out of her
self in a wave of ecstasy
That spreads through all of her body.
Her nervous, vascular and muscular
Systems participate in the act.
The muscles of the pelvis contract
And discharge a plug of mucus from the cervix
While the muscular sucking motions of the cervix
Facilitate the incoming of the semen.
At the same time the constriction of the pelvic
Muscles prevents the loss of the semen. The discharge
Makes the acid vaginal lubricant
Alkaline, so as not to destroy the spermatazoa.
And, maybe the poem from the entire collection that I am least able to be rationally critical about, I love it so much, Paul Goodman’s “The Lordly Hudson”:
“Driver, what stream is it?” I asked, well knowing
it was our lordly Hudson hardly flowing,
“It is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing,”
he said, “under the green-grown cliffs.”
Be still, heart! no one needs your passionate
suffrage to select this glory,
this is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing
under the green-grown cliffs.
“Driver! has this a peer in Europe or the East?”
“No no!” he said. Home! home!
be quiet, heart! this is our lordly Hudson
and has no peer in Europe or the East,
this is our lordly Hudson hardly flowing
under the green-grown cliffs
and has no peer in Europe or the East.
Be quiet, heart! home! home!
6. George Oppen, Of Being Numerous (New Directions, 1968)
Yet another thrift-store pick. I had no idea Oppen was an “Objectivist,” or a communist or a modernist or anything. This book simply felt like a briefcase full of plutonium in my hands. Dark, prophetic, intensely sad, like a remote satellite signal or a secret radio broadcast.
5. James Tate, The Lost Pilot (Yale UP, 1967)
This one I got in a used book store in Isla Vista in, oh, it must have been 1982? I memorized “Coming Down Cleveland Avenue,” the first poem in the book, and let me tell you in confidence, that one is great for impressing cute bohemians. The standard critical line is unfortunately true: Tate was never able to rise again to the heights he reached in this collection. He’s consistently written affecting poems here and there in the decades since, but nothing that has the strange elegiac power of The Lost Pilot’s title poem, with its bizarre opening lines:
Your face did not rot
like the others—the co-pilot,
for example, I saw him
yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,
the poor ignorant people, stare
as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.
But your face did not rot
like the others—it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their
distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,
down from your compulsive
orbiting, I would touch you,
read your face as Dallas,
your hoodlum gunner, now,
with the blistered eyes, reads
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested
scholar touches an original page.
However frightening, I would
discover you, and I would not
turn you in; I would not make
you face your wife, or Dallas,
or the co-pilot, Jim. You
could return to your crazy
orbiting, and I would not try
to fully understand what
it means to you. All I know
is this: when I see you,
as I have seen you at least
once every year of my life,
spin across the wilds of the sky
like a tiny, African god,
I feel dead. I feel as if I were
the residue of a stranger’s life,
that I should pursue you.
My head cocked toward the sky,
I cannot get off the ground,
and, you, passing over again,
fast, perfect, and unwilling
to tell me that you are doing
well, or that it was mistake
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune
placed these worlds in us.
Look, I know that Tate (or his imitators) and maybe this poem in particular (or its imitators) are partly responsible for a lot of what’s been wrong with American poetry for the past 35 years, but the qualities of this work that thrilled me when I first read it still work on me: the nutty conflation of casual discursiveness and lyric pomp, the chewy mock-eloquence, the mysterious syntactic discontinuties between parts of grammatical units (not “new sentences” exactly, but something drawing on a similar principle to achieve almost the inverse effect: whereas the new sentence draws one’s attention to the joints of constructed discourse within the units of the prose paragraph, thereby de-constructing its “reality effect,” Tate’s sentences demonstrate how even the most erratically sorted sememes can be made to perform a simulacrum of sense), the sly tweaking of conventional emotive rhetoric. I don’t even mind the textbook “lyrical close” of the poem’s ending, because it’s just like all the rest of the poem, and the book as a whole: under the surface tone of Hallmark friendliness, its indeterminacy is unsettlingly nihilistic.
4. Paul Carroll, ed., The Young American Poets (Big Table, 1968)
Stanislaus County Free Library. I didn’t encounter Allen’s New American Poetry until much later, so other than the Beats, this was my first inkling that there were concentrated communities of writers who had different objectives from each other and so on. Here, as in Strand’s anthology, New York School poets were neighbors with writers like Charles Simic, but I don’t know if it could have been clear to anyone at that point how incompatible some of these writers’ projects would later seem. There were full page pictures of each poet. I remember thinking Coolidge looked really weird and cool. His poetry, along with poets like Padgett’s and Berrigan’s, was some of the most exciting I had ever seen. It was like punk, pure anarchy! There were no full books of most of their work at the library, so I didn’t rediscover them till I went to college at UC Santa Cruz in 1988.
3. Ron Padgett & David Shapiro, eds., An Anthology of New York Poets (Random House, 1970)
That’s where I came across this, and the next book on the list:
2. Ron Silliman, ed., In the American Tree (National Poetry Foundation, 1986)
These two collections gave me a second awakening. At the time, I didn’t even know there was a difference between NYS and Language; it was all part of a big blast of oxygen after several years of getting more and more mired in the kind of poetry that I was reading in journals like Poetry and Antaeus, which were the only kinds of journals I knew existed at the time. During the quarter I found these books, I was taking a poetry workshop from a writer of very conventional narrative/lyric/slice-of-life verse, who discouraged me promptly and energetically when I read work I had written under the influence of Coolidge and Silliman and Melnick and others. I bagged writing poetry for about the next five years at least.
1. Harryette Mullen, S*PeRM**K*T (Singing Horse, 1992)
One of the books Michael Golston had on his shelf in our shared office at Stanford during my postdoc year (1999). Everything started up again for me. I had taken a class on the lyric from Marjorie Perloff a couple years before that, and this had rekindled a little of my interest, but for some reason it didn’t “take” the way having all those hours in which I was supposed to be converting my dissertation into a book to read poetry instead did. That was barely a sentence, if at all, so it’s time to stop.