Here’s a meme I picked up from Ron Silliman’s blog: list the 20 books that caused you to fall in love with poetry. It is, as Ron notes, quite a different proposition from asking you to list the 20 books of poetry most influential on your current thinking. My list is pretty weird, shaped largely by what I happened to come in contact with during high school, and by a particular class I took in college which cemented my certainty that experimental poetry was What I Was Going To Do With My Life. Here’s the list in alphabetical order, with some explanatory notes.
Will Alexander, Asia and Haiti — I decided to write a paper about this in that class because it was the most difficult book we’d read so far. Making that decision made me feel pretty cool.
John Ashbery, Your Name Here — A peculiar choice from Ashbery’s oeuvre, to be sure, but it was the first book of his I ever came across. “The Fortune Cookie Crumbles” remains one of my favorite poems ever.
Karin Boye, Complete Poems, tr. David McDuff — This was sent to me by my cousins in Sweden, and it was exactly what a melodramatic teenager needed. Her poems are a strange marriage of strong viking spirit and burning romance. Here are some lines that stick with me to this day: “Fair, fair is joy, fair also is sorrow. / But fairest is to stand on pain’s battlefield / with stilled mind and see that the sun is shining.”
Reggie Cabico and Todd Swift, eds., Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry — I bought this book at Barnes & Noble when I was about fifteen because I wanted to find out “what people were writing today,” and I was so charmed that I read at least four or five of the poems in here at an event at my high school. I think the major revelation that the book gave me was that poetry could be really fucking funny without being trivial, a fact that would be reinforced by all the experimental stuff I would begin reading once I got to college. A few years ago, Cabico was brought out as a special guest at a poetry reading I’d participated in, and it seemed like I made his year by recognizing him and explaining at great length what his anthology had meant to me.
e.e. cummings, 100 Selected Poems — A friend of mine once said that e.e. cummings is for deep sixteen-year-olds, and I think he’s right, but I think a lot of us are secretly deep sixteen-year-olds at heart. When I was a deep sixteen-year-old in the flesh, I would stay up late and sit on the floor in front of the full-length mirror in my closet and read e.e. cummings out loud to myself. The revelation that cummings was not actually very difficult once you read him out loud was a pretty important one for me.
Emily Dickinson, Selected Poems — A boy gave this to me for my sixteenth birthday, with a bunch of artifacts inside keyed to specific poems — pictures, magazine clippings, a necklace. Most of them are still in there. Years later, I would write a paper about death and the void in Dickinson, and decide that this gifted edition presented a pretty heavily edited view of her work.
Allen Ginsberg, Howl — Sooner or later, every poetry-loving teenager gets ahold of Howl. I was fortunate enough to have access to my mother’s legitimately-70s copy. Later, I would name one of my notebooks “The Sunflower Sutras.”
Joy Harjo, A Map to the Next World — I read this book in college under my favorite tree on one of the first warm days of spring, and cried like I was waking up from a terrible dream. Just a few days ago I was reminded of that experience and I picked the book up again, and I had trouble figuring out what had moved me so deeply. Harjo has some interesting things to say, for sure, and I’ve always been interested in myth, but I think it must have been a confluence of circumstance that made me love this book so much back then.
H.D., Trilogy — I have now written four separate papers on this book for graduate school. Every time I re-read it there’s something new to pay attention to.
Lyn Hejinian, My Life — This is one of the books I wrote my senior honors thesis on, and I read it six million billion times. I circled all the repetitions and keyed them together by page number, I underlined any time she seemed to be saying anything about the composition process, and I came to love parataxis above all other literary devices.
Yusef Komunyakaa, Neon Vernacular — I read “Woman, I Got the Blues” to basically everyone who will let me. You have to yell the “sweet mercy” line pretty loudly and sincerely to get it right.
Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Bedecker — I was on a date with a guy ten years older and a million times cooler than I was, and I took him to one of my favorite little bookstores in NYC, and he pulled this book off the shelf and said “if you buy this, I guarantee that you’ll be ahead of the game in your next poetry class.” And he was right; Loy was assigned to me just a few weeks later, in a modernist poetry class I took my senior year. I had already read it and fallen in love with “Songs to Joannes,” which remains one of my favorite ambiguous-love poems of all time.
Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary — This was it; this was the book that I was reading when I decided “this, right here, is what I am going to do with my life.”
Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems, A Bilingual Edition, ed. Nathanial Tarn — Really, what I loved the most in this volume was the Viente Poemas de Amor. I read my mother’s copy so many times that the binding fell apart, so she didn’t mind too much when I stole it and brought it to college with me.
Sylvia Plath, Ariel — I am allergic to bees, and hence pretty afraid of them. My most vivid memory of this book is of being so unable to put it down that I took it to the dorm kitchen with me to read while making dinner.
Adrienne Rich, The Fact of a Doorframe — I first encountered Rich through one of her more recent books assigned in class, but it was this “selected poems” volume that really had an effect on me; watching the arc of her career as it developed was incredibly interesting.
Leslie Scalapino, The Public World / Syntactically Impermanence — My most vivid memory of reading this is of lounging around on the quad in the sunshine while a tour group walked by, and thinking to myself, “The scene of me reading here only looks idyllic. If they could see inside my head or even just onto this page, boy howdy would they get a different idea.”
Juliana Spahr, Fuck You – Aloha – I Love You — I read this book at the beginning of a five-hour bus ride, and then I read it again, and then I read it again. It was like watching the same tower be built, unbuilt, and rearranged over and over again.
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons — The professor of that landmark poetry class I took in college gave us the first few pages of this on the first day of class, and I thought he was out of his mind. Over the next few weeks, though, I realized that he was right, and this stuff was incredibly interesting. Furthermore, when I read the whole book, I was surprised to find that it was downright hilarious. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I too start my poetry classes with Tender Buttons. (And Shakespeare, and Christian Bök’s aural ravings, and I ask my students whether each of these three objects count as poetry and why.)
Rosmarie Waldrop, Reluctant Gravities
Rosmarie Waldrop, The Reproduction of Profiles – Waldrop instantly became my favorite living poet when I read these two books, and she remains so today (her other books are great, too). I think she is the only person in the history of the human race who has successfully solved the mind-body problem.
Last night, in a fit of boredom with my dissertation reading, I decided I needed to make something. I have a bunch of back issues of Poetry, the incredibly dreary magazine of the Poetry Foundation, an organization whose website invites you to “discover poetry” via the six essential categories of “love,” “weddings,” “autumn,” “sadness,” “death,” and “funerals.” (I once got so livid about this fact that I wrote a sestina with those six categories as the end words, but it wasn’t very good so you don’t get to see it.) Anyway, I came into these back issues of Poetry in college, when one of my professors was getting rid of them and I thought that reading them would be a good way to figure out “what was going on in the poetry world.” But I figured out quickly that Poetry is about as on the cutting edge as the Grammys, which recently gave “best rock song of 2008” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” I grew up in New Jersey and I love The Boss, but that song utterly fails to rock — and there are plenty of yowling young bands with questionable haircuts that could teach him a thing or two these days.
So anyway, I cut apart the first one of those back issues last night, which required me to read it pretty closely. This was at times physically painful, but one unexpected result of scanning these poems for interesting words or phrases was that I noticed that of the fifteen or so poems in the magazine, at least five contained the word “mirror,” another five contained the word “river,” and another five were on the subject of aging. Furthermore, these groups overlapped somewhat and were arranged sequentially in the magazine — it began with “river” poems, then moved into poems where “rivers” were compared to “mirrors,” then “mirror” poems, then poems where people looked into mirrors & saw themselves aging, & finally moved into “old age” poems. These observations represent a general trend & don’t cover absolutely every poem in there, I don’t think, but I was somewhat surprised to see the organizing hand of an editor so clearly visible. However, ultimately, nearly all these poems were nothing but triteness and treacle. Do we really need more poems comparing rivers to mirrors? Come the fuck on.
These were my rules: I could use nothing other than material in this one issue (June 2003), and I was limited to what my scissors could actually remove. So if I cut out something on one page, and in doing so I mangled something on the reverse, that thing on the reverse page was lost to me. Furthermore, if I messed up in cutting something out and cut the word apart, it was lost to me. Rather than agonize over whether the poem on the front or the reverse of the page had “better” material for my purposes, I just went straight through the magazine page by page — which means, I suppose, that poems on odd-numbered pages are probably represented more heavily than poems on even-numbered pages. Fun fact: one of the poems that I harvested from was by Kay Ryan, our current poet laureate. It was called “The Niagra River,” and while not actively offensive to my sensibilities, it was pretty boring.
I apologize for the quality of this picture; for some reason it was really difficult to get the text to photograph legibly. Also, you might be interested to know that the picture at the bottom is from a Visa ad, and the whole thing is pasted on the side of a shoebox with an interesting texture that I found in my closet. Without further ado: