April has been National Poetry Month since 1996. Poets.org has information about the month: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/47
For a long time I’ve loved reading poetry, especially contemporary poems, and also I hoped I would become a published poet myself. Though some of my poems have appeared in small presses, the latter dream has been mostly unfulfilled over the years. Recently I decided to get serious about pursuing that goal and have been very productive. But then I think: why do I have to take myself so damn seriously, as if my worth and productivity were the same thing? Why can’t I just enjoy reading poetry for its own sake? Fortunately I HAVE done that. In fact, given the choice between reading poetry and reading fiction, I’d always chose poetry.
My mother owned an old book, The American Album of Poetry, edited by Ted Malone and published in 1938. The poems were selected from magazines and other periodicals of the day, traditionally rhymed and themed verses of now forgotten poets—perhaps everyday people who simply enjoyed writing. Malone included two blank pages and said they were for beautiful poems never written by men who had died in the world war. Mom said she had begged her parents (Depression-era poor) to buy her the book, and later told her I wanted it as a family keepsake.
My parents had an old book called Chief American Poets (Houghton Mifflin, 1905), with selected poems by Bryant, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Whitman, and Lanier. I still have that book, too. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I’d read it as I lay in the backyard to work on my tan (a futile and tedious process, so I wanted to have a good book). I remember that Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” which he wrote when he was a teenager, Lanier’s “The Symphony” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” and most of Whitman’s poems were favorites.
In the 1980s, in the Southwest, I stopped by a feminist and New Age bookstore and found an anthology called The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. I almost left the book there because of the store’s indifferent service, but fortunately I purchased it anyway and, among the over 100 authors featured, I discovered several poets I liked (born in the 1940s and 1950s, thus the title of that 1985 book) like David Bottoms, W. S. Di Piero, Stephen Dobyns, Rita Dove, Lynn Emanuel, Louise Glück, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Hass, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, and others. I name these particular authors because, over the past thirty years, I also purchased books of their poems, and also books by Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke (in Robert Bly’s translation), Pablo Neruda, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Penn Warren, Michael Van Walleghen, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Wright, David Clewell, Dan Guillory, Jane Hirschfield, Nancy Schoenberger, Langston Hughes, John Ashbery, Jane Kenyon, Robert Pack, Amy Clampitt, Dave Smith, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Wendell Berry, John Knoepfle, W. S. Merwin, William Stafford, Hayden Carruth, Jeffrey Skinner, George Bradley, Annie Dillard, Richard Kenney, Andrew Hudgins, and Anne Sexton. Some of these—like Van Walleghen and Milosz and Charles Wright and Kenyon and Bukowski and others—I return to a lot.
That Morrow Anthology amused me slightly because of the photographs of some of the poets: the forced sense of seriousness on their expressions, and a few looked downright hostile. One poet (whom I probably shouldn’t identify) had pursed lips like she was about to spit at you.
Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, is very serious (and sometimes elegiac) in his poems but nevertheless smiles for the camera! I turn to his poems a lot because I love the sound of his poems and also the depth of his connection to the natural world; I find that inspiring and I’d like to approach that conviction in my own poems.
Berry’s poems remind me of another personal preference: some ambiguity in poems is necessary and beautiful, but too much and I become frustrated as a reader. I read Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices during our years in Virginia; the ambiguity combined with the urgency and sometimes danger of his poems left me unsettled. They were like stories for which I missed essential plot elements. Perhaps that’s Smith’s purpose. On the other hand, I love John Ashbery’s poems, about which critics debate whether they mean anything or are artistically surrealistic. (“Hasn’t the sky?” begins his poem “Clytemnestra.”)
Ashbery is often funny (for instance, his “Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler WIlcox”), as is Billy Collins. As I read some of his poems I felt so pleased to be chuckling. Oh my gosh, this is wonderful, I thought, happy to find that although his poems could be serious (and they were beautiful) some of them pulled your leg. For instance, I love “Fishing on the Susquehanna in July,” where in vivid lines he admits he’s never fished that or any river.
I learned about Billy Collins from one of my best friends, Tom Dukes, who is a wonderful poet and teacher whose collection Baptist Confidential is one I turn to frequently. We both taught at University of Akron, and, when I wanted to take a class of his, I had to enroll as a freshman, something about which he still kids me. He sends me University of Akron Press collections that he recommends and also Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems anthologies.
It’s enjoyable to have little memories associated with certain books. I remember an intense seminary friend who picked up my recently-purchased Anne Sexton collection, hated it, and urged me to read Edna St. Vincent Millay instead. Still another day, another friend and I were on a day trip to see New England autumn leaves when we stopped at a Litchfield, CT bookstore and I purchased a paperback of Auden’s selected poems. His introduction intrigued me that he omitted some “dishonest” poems, which I later discovered were notable ones like “Spain” and “September 1, 1939.” I was in old jeans and nice shirt and barefooted one hot day when I swung by a favorite campus bookstore and, enjoying the cool indoor air on my feet, I found an Oscar Williams-edited anthology which I liked for a long time for its good selection of ancient to modern poems.
I’ve never attended a poetry reading except for one time, and it was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who visited our campus in the mid 1980s. He is a very dramatic reader of his poetry—a performer, really. A colleague read his poems in English first, and then Yevtushenko recited the same poem in his native Russian.
I read a lot of T.S. Eliot in divinity school. For some of us, seminary/divinity school can be a time of existential crisis or heartrending introspection, often spurred by a notable author. I’ve a friend who was knocked sideways by Kierkegaard. During my last year of divinity school, I spent so much time studying Eliot! I don’t remember what turned me to Eliot, but his poetry struck me with tremendous force. His now-familiar images–light, shadow, rock, dryness, fire, the dancer, the rose–and the way his poems communicated through their rhythms and sounds as much as by their words–not a new idea, but new to me at that time–awakened me and fascinated me. (Unfortunately I completely missed the antisemitic jabs in a few of his poems, being at the time naive to that, and I focused instead on the journey from despair to return.)
I purchased a book called A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem by Poem Analysis by George Williamson (Noonday Press, 1964) at a favorite store, Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany, CT. (http://www.whitlocksbookbarn.com/shop/default.asp) The old, used paperback, which I still have, opened meanings and explained many allusions and quotations. Williamson also described the poet’s influences which made him a leading voice in modernism—Dante, the Metaphysical poets, and the French Symbolists. Ezra Pound had been so startled, how Eliot had stumbled onto this combination and become modernist on his own.
Williamson quoted Eliot concerning the intersection of poetic technique and experience; both grow, but at certain intersections of the two, superior poetry results. This, too, was a new idea to me and seemed to me an excellent philosophy of life. (The end of “The Waste Land,” and of the poems of the “Four Quartets,” express that challenge.) Grad school was for me, as for many people, a circumstance where both my life-experience and my professional training were very much in process. Though not a “waste land,” the time was transitional. So during that time and after, I liked the idea of artistic wholeness (whatever artistry one may be devoted to) and spiritual growth as being two sides of a process–a process of living. Reading and occasionally writing poetry has been, for me, an important part of that process.