There’s not much that writers have in common: they can be atheists or Muslims, lovers of veggies or steak tartare, tranquil or wide-eyed crazies... but they’re all readers. It doesn’t matter what they read, and they’ll share their enthusiasms and influences over martinis or oolong tea.
Right now I’m reading, slowly, Christian Wiman’s new book, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, part memoir and part an essay on poetry as a search for spiritual truth: “[A] poet’s technical decisions are moral decisions,” he writes, “Matters of form and sound have existential meaning and consequences. It’s also why poetry is so important in the world, even if few people read it.” Wiman reminds me why I started writing in the first place. I wanted to write a great poem, like a Shakespeare sonnet or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” or “After Apple-Picking.” Although sometimes poems come to me as playful and unimportant, at other times I seem to be in the hands of something large and inexplicable. I don’t think about this too much — it makes me dizzy — but this sad world is full of possibility; and I’ll keep trying to write about it.
When I “retired” in 1993, I thought I’d begin re-reading my favorite books, starting with the new translation of War and Peace. I loved it, but that ended that idea. Now I just read what somehow comes along. A friend loaned me Jess Walter’s terrific novel, Beautiful Ruins. I picked up Anthony Doerr’s gripping All the Light We Cannot See because it won the Pulitzer Prize. Last week a story, “Backpack,” in The New Yorker, knocked me over so I called up Haslam’s Bookstore and ordered Tony Earley’s first novel, Jim the Boy. Magazines like Poetry and Tin House arrive regularly, along with The New York Times and Tampa Bay Times, not to mention Creative Loafing. I just learned our friend from Writers in Paradise, Andre Dubus III, has a new novel out, Gone So Long. Back to Haslam’s.
Influences are multiple, accumulated over years, sometimes dramatically. Growing up in a blue-collar family, I was a closet poet, pretending I wanted to play shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, like all my friends. (Well, I did want to do that, but I also had this secret...)
Finally, in 1948, at Hamilton College, I was taking a course on Shakespeare by a poetry-loving professor named Robert Rudd (nicknamed Bobo by us). Turning in an assigned essay, I impulsively attached three of my poems.
The next day they came back. Above the poems he wrote, “Young man, go to the Bookstore and buy the Selected Poems of John Donne.” That was it. After class I bought the book (Laurel Poetry Series, 35 cents), and read right through it, over faint protests by my roommates. I don’t know how Bobo knew, but they were the poems I needed; and throughout my life as a teacher I’ve tried to do that: match the right poet to the right student.
Donne’s poems were formal, witty, smart, sexy. I wanted to write like that. So I gravitated toward poets like Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, Marilyn Hacker, Philip Larkin: writers comfortable with form, whose poems tend to move forward in at least a semi-narrative manner. (Still, I was delighted when the free-verse obscene “Howl” jumped out in 1956 and offended most of my teachers.) In a general way, I believe all poets should be familiar with the various forms, even if they don’t use them; form has a mind of its own, and can teach us about our language.
My latest book, Tasting Like Gravity, includes free-verse poems, a villanelle, a sestina; and a batch of rondeaux, an intricate old French form I’ve been attracted to lately, trying to get comfortable with it, making it funny (sometimes) and more American. Fortunately, it also includes illustrations by my artist wife Jeanne, which everyone will understand and enjoy.