Sometimes I start a class with a book that takes me straight to the heart of wanting to write poetry: First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them, edited by Carmela Ciuraru (Scribners 2001). If you don’t already know it, I’d recommend the amazon page review for a sense of what it’s like. Ciuraru asked a wide range of contemporary poets to choose a poem that inspired them early on and say a few words about it. Every time I read around in the book I’m taken back to some of my own sources, and the same thing happens to students when they read it: a direct line opens to those original urges. The book is full of surprises: Robert Creeley chooses Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” and Wanda Coleman picks Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” for example.
A number of experiences made me fall in love with words: my father asking “What’s black and white and red all over?” I was stumped. “A newspaper.” What? Oh! Read! That language could do that. Or my grandmother writing out “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lambsy divey” after she’d sung it. Later it was Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and—like Creeley—the galloping “Highwayman.” But it was Frost’s ability to see through tranquil surfaces to the depths below that resonated with something in me, from the opening of “My November Guest” (“My sorrow, when she’s here with me/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ Are beautiful as days can be….”) to the horrifying “Out, Out—,” where a young boy is mortally wounded as he’s sawing lumber. But one in particular seemed to speak directly to me, where I lived in Utah’s arid landscape:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
I’m curious to hear about your first loves. Please add your own thoughts and choices to The Poetry Conversation.
My mother started reading poetry to me as soon as I could sit steadily on her lap. Yes, ‘The Highwayman,” and Vachel Lindsay, a great deal of Frost and Dickinson, James Whitcomb Riley (my mother was a Hoosier), Keats and Carl Sandburg and Ogden Nash and, her personal hero, Edna St Vincent Millay. My mother also wrote poetry, much in the style of Millay and Amy Lowell and Sara Teasdale and Adelaide Crapsey, and she always let me read her notebooks and finished poems. I still have those notebooks.
What a treasure, those notebooks. You’re lucky. My mom read Riley to me too. It’s a gift to have that in our ears from childhood on.
Well before I wrote poetry or even much read it, back when I was a graduate student in engineering, I remember cutting out and saving a Roethke poem that had been published in the University of Washington “Daily”:
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplicaton of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.
It seems almost funny now, the way I would open my desk drawer and pull out the poem, nod in some secret place about the inexorable sadness of pencils, then push it back in the drawer and work on my Fortran code. “Dolor” rode with me as I walked the halls. It understood me better than I understood myself –I was on the wrong place doing the wrong thing. And the message was strangely (not so strange now that I understand the poem’s rhythms and music), sadly, beautiful.
In childhood: It was the Tall Book of Mother Goose, maybe especially “What Little Girls Are Made Of” and “What Little Boys Are Made Of.” The Fodor Rojankovsky illustration of “puppy dog tails” was wonderfully literal and gory which influenced my choice, but generally, Mother Goose was a mental soundtrack.
Kathleen, one of my favorite poems! I was a huge Roethke fan and that one also spoke to me in my office/jail. And, what you describe was so true for me too—working in an office and having that secret life as a poet. Though I kept some in my drawer, I was also pretty bold about it and would cut out poems from the New Yorker to push-pin onto my cubicle wall (I must have read “Ask the Roses” by Phillip Levine hundreds of times, in times of utter boredom and despair, as I had hung it directly in front of me, where I was working of software manuals). Also had Dylan Thomas’ “The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”) prominently displayed on the OUTSIDE wall of my cubicle, as if to say–see? This is really who I am! I still adore both poems.
I love this. I think there’s something crucial about poetry being a secret life, even after we publish.
Hi Sharon! I didn’t have poetry read to me (or have much”literature” in the home), so, pre-school, I learned how to read from my brother’s comic books (Little Lulu was the best–loved that rebel girl), cereal boxes, street signs and any other scraps of words floating around. Once I was so excited to be able to read a street sign I shouted “Turkey Salad” from the backseat of the car (the sign said “Thickly Settled”). Blank stares. Another time, while waiting with my father while he bought some beer at a liquor store, I noticed a painting with a retriever-type dog on the wall above the cashier and was so excited (I loved dogs), I yelled “Cheapskate!” (It was a Chesapeake Bay Retriever). My father looked astonished as he was just making the purchase. The sounds of words were also magical and thrilling. At mass, of course I couldn’t understand the Latin, but loved the climb and sway and sheer power of it. At home, my father would intone: “Who’s playing dominoes on my shirt tails?” (taken from dominus vobiscum and some other Latin phrase). He’d also mix up the beatitudes (e.g. “Many are cold, but few are frozen”). I loved all the wordplay and sounds–my brother and I used to take a word and repeat it until it had different meanings, then no meaning, just a sound. We would laugh ourselves into stomach aches. It was glorious. All of this comes to mind from your question. My love of words and their sounds was most certainly the precursor for my love of poetry. Thanks for starting the conversation!
I love this! Exactly that love of language we start from. Made me laugh out loud.
Joan – This is so funny. I love that you remember so many examples. “Turkey Salad” *still chuckling from that one.
This is hilarious, Joan.
My mother read to me from a collection edited by Louis Untermeyer (I still have it) and I was mostly fascinated by rhyme and cadence. I still remember “The Raggedy Man” (there’s Riley again–amazing to hear his name right off the bat in this conversation) and my then favorite poem, “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. I was also enthralled by humor and loved Ogden Nash. In the 6th grade I memorized “Eletelephony,” by Laura Elizabeth Richards. I have often turned to that Untermeyer collection just to pore through in idle moments. There are some good and some great poems in it, and even a Whitman excerpt (I didn’t like it as a child), but the truth is, it just reminds me of the comfort of my mother’s voice and the beauty of rhythm and rhyme.
Dave, I love this. The ending brought tears to my eyes because it’s exactly the source we need to keep in touch with.
Here’s my next question about this topic. How would you say those elements of poetry that moved you as a child shape your poetry in the present?
I love Kathleen’s explanation of “Dolor” understanding her better than she understood herself. That is how I felt when I came upon “A Secret Life” (Which is a theme you mentioned as well, Sharon.) by Stephen Dunn:
A Secret Life
Why you need to have one
is not much more mysterious than
why you don’t say what you think
at the birth of an ugly baby.
Or, you’ve just made love
and feel you’d rather have been
in a dark booth where your partner
was nodding, whispering yes, yes,
you’re brilliant. The secret life
begins early, is kept alive
by all that’s unpopular
in you, all that you know
a Baptist, say, or some other
accountant would object to.
It becomes what you’d most protect
if the government said you can protect
one thing, all else is ours.
When you write late at night
it’s like a small fire
in a clearing, it’s what
radiates and what can hurt
if you get too close to it.
It’s why your silence is a kind of truth.
Even when you speak to your best friend,
the one who’ll never betray you,
you always leave out one thing;
a secret life is that important.
This poem not only described the secret life in a concrete way that I could not yet articulate, it gave me permission for my own inner self, which was beginning to include writing poetry. I now protect my secret life like contraband. And without guilt.