Tiny Autobiography in Ten Books

(Note:  It's that listing time of year, and reading numerous other people's top 10 thises, thats, and whatevers inspired me to resurrect for this site a kind of top 10 of my own, written a couple of years ago for a book called Poet's Bookshelf II, in which an almost indecent number of poets comment on the 10 books that influenced them the most.  That book was edited by Peter Davis and Tom Koontz and published by Barnwood Press in Seattle.  Thanks to them for the occasion to write this piece and permission to reprint it.)

    1.  Beat packet (1965)  I grew up in a small paper mill town in northern Wisconsin, where modern poetry, as of mid-century, hadn't yet dared to tread.  My high school poems were modeled on Edgar Allan Poe.  But that changed fast when the English teacher of a friend who'd moved to Arizona loaned me a packet of books by the Beats, to whom this man boasted shirt-tail relations.  They included Ginsberg's Howl, Corso's Gasoline, Ferlinghetti's Pictures of the Gone World, and Kerouac's On the Road, a veritable beatnik starter kit.  I didn't understand these works, but I badly wanted access to the world of rebellious adult freedom they represented.  After four decades, I still find the insistently drumming opening lines of Corso's "Spontaneous Requiem for the American Indian" compelling:  "Wakonda!  Talako!  deathonic turkey gobbling in the softfootpatch night!"  My friend's teacher, John Thomas Richards, also enclosed a spare copy of Rexroth's Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile, the first volume of poetry I actually owned.

    2.  Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares  (1971)  Kinnell has said that his intent in this long-poem sequence was to approximate Rilke's feat in the Duino Elegies of reaching beyond personal knowledge into what might be called universal or intuitive knowledge.  For my money, Kinnell's romantically existential long-poem always seemed more grounded in bodily reality, and thus more convincing, than Rilke's magnum opus.  I'm indebted to Kinnell, throughout his work but especially in The Book of Nightmares, for the startling idea that by sheer, cumulative, rhythmic energy, the poem can sometimes thrust itself--and the poet along with it--into an unlearned knowledge.  (Need I add that the birth section of "Lastness" is one of the most profoundly tender poems in the English language?)

    3.  Pablo Neruda, Selected Poems, edited by Nathaniel Tarn  (1972)  Neruda had been only a rumor to me until this generous selection, translated by W. S. Merwin, Anthony Kerrigan, Alastair Reid and Nathaniel Tarn, arrived one day at the office of the college newspaper for which I was writing a weekly column.  This was Whitman and Kinnell with something extra added--call it a mature surrealism with more gravitas and psychological texture than my beloved Beats could offer.  I immediately stopped writing imitations of the Beats and began writing imitations of Neruda.  There are single-translator volumes of Neruda I love better--those by Bly and Reid--but I can never forget the stupendous power of this first Chilean tidal wave's breaking.

    4.  Robert Bly, Leaping Poetry  (1976)  I admired the decisive, even reckless, way Bly as mounted berserker swung his sword left and right, joyfully decapitating the academic empty suits of armor in this polemic tour de force.  Most valuable to me perhaps of Bly's innumerable contributions to American poetry is his insistence on swift association and that the poem be able to "leap" freely between different areas in the psyche.  After Leaping Poetry, I could no longer be content with writing poems that remained exclusively in either the outer world or the inner world.  (As a companion to Leaping Poetry among Bly's own books of poems, I favor This Body Is Made of Camphor and Gopherwood, his most ecstatic leaping:  ". . .the human face, fresh after love-making, more full of joy than a wagonload of hay."  Yes.)

    5.  Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie  (1978)  I discovered Rimbaud at about the last possible moment for maximum effectiveness, the year I turned 30, bumming around Europe.  Picking grapes in the Beaujolais, I observed how personally even the roughest French farm laborers owned this heroically alienated poet.  Thus one of my first book purchases upon returning to the States was the Fowlie translation.  I fell in love with Rimbaud's prose poems and wrote 200 of my own in a year.  The energy of that love affair helped me break through some old writing limitations and widen the range of what I was able to say in a poem.  A half-dozen of that prose poem vendange made it into my first collection, Keeping the Star.  Six good poems out of 200 struck me at the time as a high success rate.

    6.  Mary Oliver, Twelve Moons  (1979)  I have to admit that until this first free verse volume of Oliver's (she'd published two before it in stricter forms), I'd never read a "nature" poet who didn't to some extent bore me.  Oliver managed to transcend the descriptive tedium I rightly or wrongly associated with standard bird-and-flower poetry.  (I had yet to read Lawrence or Clare. . . .)  In Twelve Moons, Oliver found the voice by which we now identify her, as her mentor James Wright found his distinctive voice in The Branch Will Not Break.  In short lines untethered from iambic constraints, her poems, on wings of observation and imagination, took flight.  Like a hawk lifting a mouse from the grass, Oliver elevated American nature poetry to new, astonished heights.
     7.  R. H. Blyth, Haiku, 4 vols.  (1981)  I'd noticed this series on the bookshelves in many hippie houses of the 1960s, but didn't get around to reading them until the 80s.  Besides constituting arguably the finest compendium of Japanese haiku in English, these four seasonally-themed volumes laid out a whole philosophy of life rooted in English expatriate Blyth's Zen practice.  Blyth has a lot to say about these brief poems, in entertainingly pithy, frequently provocative tones reminiscent of Rexroth.  To those who see in haiku nothing more than a Hallmark prettiness, Blyth says over and over with his bracing interpretive paragraphs, "Look again!"  I treasure brevity and concision in poetry, which a long, delighted study of Blyth confirmed.

     8.  Alden Nowlan, I Might Not Tell Everybody This  (1989)  At the end of my first visit to the Canadian Maritimes, after the other guests were gone, the lobster and fiddleheads eaten and the Molson drunk, my friend and host Allan Cooper said, "There's one more poem I want to read to you."  In that empty late-night kitchen, I was devastated by Alden Nowlan's "He Sits Down on the Floor of a School for the Retarded."  My hunger for more Nowan led ultimately to tracking down the dozen collections appearing during Nowlan's lifetime (1933-1983), from which I chose 94 for a US selection published by another Stateside Nowlan admirer, Robert Bly.  We have everything to learn from Nowlan about writing clearly and honestly of human contradictions without resorting to the wretched excesses of confessionalism.  While assembling the book, I experienced an uncanny sense of Nowlan's approving presence, and adopted him as a posthumous mentor.  In I Might Not Tell Everybody This, his last volume, which Allan sent home with me, one no-holds-barred, go-for-broke poem follows another in stunning succession.  Why has no American press picked up this masterpiece?

     9.  William Stafford, The Way It Is (1998)  When I was in my thirties, Stafford was a taste too subtle for my palate.  A shame, because he seemed to visit the small college town where I lived every couple of years.  I'm embarrassed to admit that, around 1980, spotting him at a local restaurant with one of my former English teachers and thinking, "Oh, Stafford is in town again," I blithely walked on.  The irony is that I now revisit Stafford more frequently than almost any other American poet, for his intelligence and integrity, and yes, finally, for his subtlety.  When conventional thinking threatens to constrict imagination in its strait-jacket, Stafford shows us again, reliably and without fanfare, how to wriggle free.
     10.  Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth  (2000)  I've been pressing this book on fellow poets since it was published in 2000, before the reign of Bush and his rapacious world-wreckers.  Bate, who achieved fame in England as a Shakespeare scholar, has become one of our most vocal proponents of "eco-poetics."  If the new millennium has produced an essential book for poets, this is it.  Poetry, Bate argues persuasively, can be a place where we preserve some of the natural wildness and beauty being lost to human destructiveness and greed.  Bate's love of literature and grief for the broken world warm and humanize what could otherwise have become a dry theoretical exercise.  This book can send troubled poets into the 21st century with a renewed and clarified sense of mission.

     0.  Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home  (1965)  Memorizing and learning to sing "Mr. Tambourine Man" as a teenager taught me as much about poetry as a physical, musical, oral medium as any of the above books.  I consider it a great inspired Beat poem on a par with anything by Ginsberg or Corso.

(A note on chronology:  The parenthesized dates following titles indicate the approximate date of my encounters with them, not the years of their publication, though often the two coincide.)

Recent Entries

The Peculiar Music of the Prose Poem
I've come to believe that the prose poem may be defined as much by its degree of relative musicality…
Ode to Joan Baez
(To honor the conjunction of two Capricorn birthdays, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on January 15 and Joan Baez on…
Trump and the "Anti-Life Ego": Reading Robert Moore's FACING THE DRAGON in 2017
Note:  This essay was originally written for the "Real Words: Real Men" blog on the Minnesota Men's Conference website.  Dr.…