Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A Ricochet

It's not my style to hit off of other people's blog sites, but I'll make an exception this once, since I've always planned to do a post on this topic.  

This morning's (untitled) entry on Silliman's Blog is a reponse to another blogger's "20 books that first caused you to fall in love with poetry," containing Ron's list, with a bit of explanation. 

Everyone's list is likely to be different, but most of the names and the general trend of Ron's list is so familiar to me, I feel we almost had the same life-track. I grew up in Napa, a weird little town about 50 miles north of San Francisco, during the 1950's and 1960's. The story of American life is mostly a story of regional isolations. Though San Francisco has traditionally been regarded as a cosmopolitan, sophisticated City, its outlying areas--referred to as the Bay Area--have pockets of suburban and rural remoteness that are less a consequence of distance than of cultural neglect (for want of another term). Growing up in Napa in those years was in many ways not unlike growing up in a small rural town in Virginia or Kentucky. The town had a firm segregation policy:  No Black People lived there, even though, just 15 miles south lay Vallejo, an old port town with a huge Negro American population. Culturally, it was living in its past; old Italian men still played bocce ball in alleyways two blocks from the center of town. If you drove for 20 minutes into the country, you could find open country and literally get lost. Change would come, but slowly. 

In the high school I attended, English literature stopped with T.S. Eliot. We read Prufrock in senior English class, but I'm not sure we had a grasp of its implications. It probably was no more, or less mysterious, to our ears, than Browning's Bishop Orders His Tomb. The reason I mention all this is that any kid, like me, with a curiosity about "modern" literature was pretty much on his own: There was no one local who knew about it, and no books in the library by contemporary writers. 

As a boy, I had been given, at age 13, a subscription to The New Yorker. But, despite entertaining a steady stream of quality writing, including poetry, that sophisticated weekly was less interested in showcasing new challenging work, than in conforming to a pre-ordained concept of Eastern sophistication, scrubbed of any blemishes or daring. The poets they published in those days would be the names Ron Silliman now calls "the Quietists." 

While still in high school, I began to read poetry seriously, on my own, but availability was limited. I read Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations, Updike's Verse (a little Fawcett paperback original reprint of his first two slim collections), May Swenson, Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, Wilbur's The Beautiful Changes, and three anthologies, two of which would serve as doors to other realms: Untermeyer's Modern American and British Poetry, Donald Hall's Penguin paperback original Contemporary American Poet (1962), and A Controversy of Poets (Anchor Books, 1965, edited by Robert Kelly and Paris Leary). In Untermeyer, I found MacLeish, Cummings, Williams, Pound, Stevens, Marianne Moore, Lowell, and Tate. But the other two books were a revelation, though what I may have made of some of what I first read there probably would embarrass me today. I distinctly recall being attracted to Snyder's Riprap poems, Wilbur's polish and richness, Simpson and Wright. Looking today at the figures in A Controversy of Poets, it's a wonder I ever found this book; it's also a wonder that I understood any of its contents (!), and that would go for its conservative choices as well as the avants. In its pages, I first read Ashbery, Eigner, LeRoy Jones, O'Hara, Zukofsky--names which would remain important to me for the next 20 years, at least. 

Attending UC Berkeley in the mid-1960's, I was exposed suddenly, and irrevocably, to a virtual crash course in new kinds of writing, but mostly through my own curiosity and canvassing of the shelves of new and used book stores. The English Department, in those days, was still stuck in reverse, and refused to acknowledge the existence of any serious poetry after 1920; which meant, for good or ill, that I was on my own. But the arrival, in 1967, of Robert Grenier--who, with Richard Tillinghast, had been invited to fill the void created by the delayed appearance of Denise Levertov (who had been hung up with her husband Mitch Goodman's legal wrangles over his protest activities)--changed everything for me. Bob, fresh from Iowa, the publication of his first book Dusk Road Games, and a year in Britain (on an Amy Lowell traveling fellowship), handed us a reading list which suddenly propelled me into the current literary vortex. Almost overnight, my exposure to a wide and deep range of contemporary poetry, grew exponentially. 

From those years, 1964 (my junior year in high school) through 1970 (my first year at Iowa), the most important books--in terms of their immediate and long-term influence on my work and thought--would have to include:

Cummings - Poems 1923-1954

Williams - Pictures from Breughel

Stevens - Harmonium

Moore - Complete Poetry 

Snyder - A Range of Poetry

Ashbery - Tennis Court Oath

Wright - Shall We Gather and The Branch Will Not Break

Bly - Silence and The Light Around the Body

Oppen - Discrete Series, The Materials and This in Which

Plath - Ariel

Zukofsky - All and A 1-12

Hecht - The Hard Hours

Eigner - another time in fragments

Schuyler - Freely Espousing

O'Hara - Meditations and Lunch Poems

Creeley - For Love, Words and Pieces

Grenier - Dusk Road Games

Whalen - On Bear's Head

Justice - Summer Anniversaries and Night Light

Dugan - Poems 1,2,3

I realize that this is a list of 20 names, not 20 books. I could easily limit the choice to one book for each author, but that's just a refinement. There were literally dozens of poets whose work I would find useful, but whose work was either so difficult to find in those days (as with Blackburn or Dorn), or seemed forbiddingly difficult or arcane (Olson, Mac Low, Spicer). Goodness knows what I thought Zukofsky was trying to do, so odd and conceited did his poems seem. This is an amble down nostalgia road for me. But, happily, all these writers are still people whose work I respect, whose efforts strike me as worthy, and largely successful.

It's interesting how writers whose work you read, seemingly with little affect, at first, grow on you, becoming increasingly important or more interesting. When I first read Eigner, or Zukofsky, I was strongly attracted to something in their work, which I would have been unable to define then. It would take years before I understood what they were doing, or how they were affecting me. First impressions can be deceiving. Also, familiarity isn't always useful; the first time I read Williams, it was like falling in love--everything seemed bright, fresh and possible; but he didn't wear particularly well. My affection for Larry Eigner's work embarrassed me at first; he wasn't someone whose work I felt I could defend on critical grounds, it seemed too easy, even juvenile at times. But these problems sort themselves out.

My tastes would change. A lot of these poets probably aren't that important to me now, at least to the extent they were then. Others now fill the gaps: Ronald Johnson, Charles Olson, Spicer, Borges, Wieners, Akhmatova. Certain styles seem to appeal to the adolescent mind, but fade as one matures. Pound would become increasingly important to me over time; I would once have been astonished to think that his work would eventually supplant that of Eliot in my personal pantheon.                        


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Kirby Olson said...

I ricocheted on to my own blog. Very fun idea. But to me, I think, it's tiny phrases, rather than whole books, that send me. Some bits here and there. The only entire poets are Corso and Moore. Maybe because I've really tried to think aboiut their entire projects, and have held them in my head, and seen it as a galaxy.

Normally, I'm content to see lil' marvels inside a poem.

Curtis Faville said...


I did read the Aeneid and Homer in college, in translation, but they had little affect on me. I took Blake and Milton and Tennyson courses in grad school, but none of these "spoke" to me the way 20th Century poets did.

Kirby Olson said...

Georgie, are you now able to read Greek fluently? What would you suggest as a good primer?

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