From the Poet's Bookshelf: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art
The Barnwood Press, Selma, IN 47383 - © 2005 Note: In this book, contributors were asked to cite the books that had been "essential" to them and then to write some commentary about the list.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Louise Glück, The Wild Iris
Louise Glück, The Seven Ages
Mary Oliver, American Primitive
David Bottoms, Under the Vulture-Tree
Derek Walcott, Collected Poems
Jorie Graham, Materialism
The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, ed. Barbara G. Walker
Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch
Roberto Calasso, Ka
Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony
To begin, I should begin at the beginning. Picture it. I was twenty-seven and vacuuming, when over the whine of the sweeper, I heard poems being read on the radio. I turned off the machine and listened. When it was over, I realized two things: first, I hadn't understood a word that had been said, and second, that whatever it was or whoever it was, it was incredible. The top of my head came off / I cut myself shaving - the true tests - whatever. I was hooked. I think the operable word here is thrilling. Many years later, after I had taught those very poems over and over again, I could still say they were thrilling. And I find them so now. I am talking, of course, about the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, not just his earlier ecstatic ones, but also the "terrible sonnets," including "Carrion Comfort," the one he said was "written in blood." Lest my enthusiasm be mistaken for some sort of religious affinity, let me say, "That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all" (thank you, Tom). It is emotional power engendered by feelings held in check and held in check until it cannot help but burst forth. For me, reading Hopkins is like being struck by a geyser that has never lost its power to overwhelm. And that's what I want from poetry. I am not interested in work imitating paint drying on a wall. Or games. And because life is difficult, I take my poetry difficult. Is this turning into a rant? Okay, so my first choice would be The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Who else? Louise Glück, especially the work in The Wild Iris and in The Seven Ages where the poems seems to be not only driven by a fierce intelligence but controlled by it to the extent that the emotion having nowhere to go must climb an intricate interior staircase looking for release. Out the attic window perhaps. In that way, she seems Hopkinsesque. Look at these lines at the end of "Stars," my favorite from The Seven Ages. The day is speaking, the "unsatisfying morning":
Do you reject me? Do you mean
to send me away because I am not
full, in your word,
because you see
the black shape already implicit?
I will never be banished. I am the light,
your personal anguish and humiliation.
Do you dare
send me away as though
you were waiting for something better?
There is no better.
Only (for a short space)
the night sky like
a quarantine that sets you
apart from your task.
Only (softly, fiercely)
the stars shining. Here,
in the room, the bedroom.
Saying I was brave, I resisted,
I set myself on fire.
It is that burst at the end I covet, that "where on earth did that come from" which, of course, was implicit all along. Is she an "influence" on me? I'd like to think so, perhaps if only in the way Everest defines the climber. Whatever it is, I'll take it.
I remember when Mary Oliver's American Primitive came out. Here was a collection that said, Look, poems exist all around you. Here in this book was the great permission: imagery and insight in plain speech racing down a page. Poems I've never gotten tired of.
Then there are the books that live on my desk and that I take with me to every colony or retreat: perhaps they are my totems. One that I've had an interesting relationship with over the years is David Bottoms' Under the Vulture-Tree. It used to belong to my husband until I confiscated it. Sometimes when I'd get stuck in a piece, writing myself into a corner, I'd open the book at random, shut my eyes and point. "Okay, Daivd," I'd say, "show me how to do this." Mind you, I didn't know the man, but damned it the magic didn't work.
There are other books I use that way: Walcott's Collected Poems, Jorie Graham's Materialism, and The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets to name a few. Then there are the Field Guides, of course; how can a writer do without them? Trees, birds, wild flowers, insects, etc.
But my ace in the hole is the three books I have by the Italian scholar Roberto Calasso: The Ruin of Kasch, Ka, and The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. More intriguing than Ovid, more intricate, imaginative, and just plain smarter than any sixty scholars you know, this man and his work are my constant companions. The books, inexhaustible.