There’s a thing (“meme”?) going around the net asking poets to make a list of twenty books that made them fall in love with poetry.
I had it sent to me by a few people, but I couldn’t figure how to respond since I feel like I was born loving poetry (I’ve been writing it since I could write), so there aren’t any books that made me “fall in love with poetry” because—I already was in love with it.
As a boy I was inspired and influenced by the liturgy at Mass and other Catholic rites and—when my oldest brother became a Franciscan—by St. Francis’ famous prayer as well as his poetry (“Brother Moon” etc.), and by song lyrics, like Johnny Mercer songs—“Zippidy Doo-Dah” and “You Got to Acc-cen-tu-ate the Positive”—and Hank Williams’—“Hey Good Lookin’” etc.
Then as I headed into my teens: Chuck Berry’s lyrics, e.g. “Mabelline” and eventually Jon Henricks’ lyrics—e.g. to Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time”—influenced everything I wrote and thought about writing, especially poetry.
But as for a list of poetry books: I decided I could make one of poetry books that confirmed my love of poetry and inspired me to discover other approaches to writing it.
Not like I need an excuse to make another list, nor as though I could limit it to only twenty, though I did limit it to people I didn’t know, at least at the time I read the books. If I were to list books by poets I know that impacted me it’d be another forty or fifty or…
So here they are, as close as possible to the chronological order of when I first read them and/or they had their initial impact on me and/or my poetry, or at least my thinking about poetry, as far as I can remember at this moment, though I know I’m forgetting too many:
In my teens:
1. DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL by St. John of the Cross
2. LA VITA NUOVA by Dante
3. LEAVES OF GRASS by Walt Whitman
4. 50 POEMS by e.e. cummings
5. “SECOND APRIL” and “THE ABOMINIST MANIFESTO” two broadsides by Bob Kaufman that knocked me out when I found them on a chair in Figaro’s one night c. 1959-60, later collected with other work in SOLITUDES CROWDED WITH LONELINESS—I also dug his GOLDEN SARDINES.
6. MEXICO CITY BLUES by Jack Kerouac
7. KADDISH AND OTHER POEMS by Allen Ginsberg—I dug his first book, HOWL AND OTHER POEMS but then got angry after being dismissed, I felt, by him and some of the other “Beats” in their first wave of fame when I was a teenager hanging around the Village, then KADDISH came out and won me back, even more so.
8. DINNERS AND NIGHTMARES by Diane di Prima—a mix of prose and poems from the “Beat” writer I felt closest to in terms of where we came from and what we were trying to do with it.
9. THE BEATS edited by Seymour Krim—especially di Priima and Ray Bremser’s “turnpike”
10. THE NEW AMERICAN POETRY edited by Donald Allen
11. THE NEW BOOK/A BOOK OF TORTURE by Michael McClure—what I liked best about the Romantic Poets I was discovering he made new and vital for my times.
12. BY THE WATERS OF MANHATTAN by Charles Reznikoff—years earlier I discovered a novel he wrote and published in the 1930s by the same name, so grabbed this New Directions paperback as soon as it came out and continued to dig all his writing.
In my twenties:
13. LUNCH POEMS by Frank O’Hara—my initial reaction to this was defensive, but it haunted me and after many re-readings changed my life.
14. RIP RAP by Gary Snyder
15. PATERSON and SPRING & ALL by William Carlos Williams—these two books altered my thinking about poetry forever, I was so inspired by and felt so connected to his poetic strategies and voice, and of course Jersey origins, no matter the generational and class differences.
16. THE MATERIALS by George Oppen—a distinct voice that nailed me with how concise a poetic line could be and influenced that direction in my own work, among the many directions I was, and still am, always taking.
17. “A CLOUD IN TROUSERS” (and other poems from SELECTED) by Vladmir Mayakovsky—big confirmation of some of my own approaches to combining what I learned as a kid from Irish myth making “boasting” and what African-Americans originally called “toasting” that contributed to “the dozens” and evolved into “rap” etc. as well as “the long poem” strategy.
18. THE BRANCH WILL NOT BREAK by James Wright—especially two poems: “A Blessing” and “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”—whose subtle strategies seemed so understatedly original.
19. SELECTED POEMS by William Butler Yeats—I was impressed more by his crazy theories than the actual poems, which rarely resonated with the kind of Irishness I grew up with but produced great and memorable lines.
20. LANGUAGE by Jack Spicer—totally opened me up to a new way of seeing how poetry could “express” my own thought processes.
21. ALPHABETS AND BIRTHDAYS by Gertrude Stein—I later used to read from this to my older kids when they were little as bed time stories; it definitely validated some of my own “experimental writing” and my sense of what is possible as did all her work as tedious as some of it can become on rereading.
22. THE CANTOS by Ezra Pound—the whole fragmentation/juxtaposition this-is-the-way-one-mind-works thing, though not the politics and petty prejudices.
23. THE WASTELAND AND OTHER POEMS by T. S. Eliot—his rhythms influenced me, I realized years later, and I still love to read “Prufrock” and others despite not digging his theories or anti-Semitism or the negative faux-intellectual impact his work had on mid-20th Century academic poetry etc.
24. THE SELECTED POETRY of Rilke
25. SELECTED POEMS of Muriel Rukeyser—no one I knew seemed to know her work back when my first wife, Lee, introduced this book to me, but the ways Rukeyser structured poems, especially long ones fascinated me and opened up new approaches to structure and rhythm and ways to balance the abstract with the concrete.
26. TALES by LeRoi Jones—that’s what it says on my edition before he became Amiri Baraka—I always preferred his “prose” to his poems and these short pieces are more prose poems than stories anyway.
27. CANE by Jean Toomer—the prose interspersed with poems is equally poetic.
28. THE SELECTED WRITINGS of Blaise Cendrars—someone whose writing style I found so compatible with my own I felt like I’d discovered a long lost soul mate reading him the first time.
29. POEMS AND ANTIPOEMS by Nicanor Parra
30. FINDING THE MEASURE by Robert Kelly—I think I fell for the actual book as much as the original poetry in it, one of the first Black Sparrow Press publications to hit me with its fineness.
31. SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS—working my way through all of them from beginning to end the first time, I had this epiphany part way in, to read the series as a novel or autobiography, which made it more accessible and easy to follow and inspired me to use the same format for an autobiography I’d been working on since I left home at 18, which became “The South Orange Sonnets”—the title and length—twenty sonnets—occurring to me after I read Peter Schjeldahl’s “Paris Sonnets” and thought of the way “The New York School” was deliberately riffing on “The Paris School” label and figured I’d bring Jersey into the equation…
32. GUNSLINGER BOOK I by Edward Dorn—the stoned horse was a little too much even then, but the precision of the language used so originally and the underlying philosophical struggle made it seem deeply important and exemplary at a time full of portents, the late 1960s.
33. BROADSIDE PRESS—almost any book from this small press that Dudley Randall ran out of Detroit, all the poets being thought of as part of the “Back Arts Movement”—having been offered a prize by a panel thinking from my poetry at the time that I was “black” and then having it taken back when it was discovered I wasn’t, I was still sometimes associated with poets in that movement, especially after Etheridge Knight and I became best friends—the impact of these emerging “black” voices in the poetry world, including Knight, Don L. Lee, Audre Lourde, Nikki Giovanni, Clarence Major, etc.—confirmed a lot of my earlier influences and made room for a much wider understanding of what poetry could be and vice versa.
34. “A” by Louis Zukofsky—the hardcover Jonathan Cape edition with the first 12 sections impressed me no end, especially being dropped into the early 20th Century New York street reality and leftist political perspective before he goes on to the distillation of Pound’s fragmentation/juxtaposition technique—reducing it to even smaller fragments and brighter, harder juxtos.
35. SOAP by Francis Ponge—a book length poem written over decades with a variety of approaches based on precise descriptive writing that extended the “no idea but in things” of WC Williams into new realms of metaphor and analogy, and even deep philosophy and political projection, et-amazingly-cetera.
36. I REMEMBER by Joe Brainard—the original oversized “chapbook” with a photo of him as a toddler on the cover—it was followed by a sequel and another sequel before later being collected as one book—one of the first books by a contemporary—who I didn’t know yet, when I read this first version—to impact my writing or at least my sense of it.
37. LION LION by Tom Raworth—another contemporary I hadn’t met yet, this book was so unbelievably original in its approach to the idea of a “poetry book” it validated all the homemade little books of poem and note fragments and paste-ins and collages I’d been making, while impressing me with its unique beauty.
38. THINGS STIRRING TOGETHER OR FAR AWAY by Larry Eigner—I already knew his work and dug it, I owned it in his earlier SELECTED POEMS and elsewhere, but this collection confirmed his importance in my personal pantheon and made me almost giddy with appreciation for his stripped down lyricism.
In my early thirties:
39. I REMEMBER THE ROOM WAS FILLED WITH LIGHT by Judith Hemschemeyer—some of my favorite straight ahead narrative lyrics about the struggles of life and love in terms usually dismissed as generic (or Ron Silliman’s “school of quietude” etc.) but she transcends through her precise use of language and imagery that resonates with the kind of dailiness I could relate to as I was uncovering my own renewed approach to being honest about the mundane as well as profane—I still dig this book and wonder who she was and what happened to her, though I guess I could just google her to find out, but I like the mystery of this one book falling into my world and introducing me to a poet I otherwise would never have noticed, let alone had my love of this most common approach to writing poetry renewed.
40. THREE POEMS by John Ashbery—another poet whose work I initially resisted (before I knew him personally) and then had an epiphany about and totally dug/dig, but this book impressed and influenced me the most, a beautifully radical approach to what a “poem” can be.
41. HYMN TO LIFE by James Schuyler—I dug all his previous books but this one (before I knew him personally) I related to in ways that seemed deeper than anything else he’d written up to then—maybe because of the long line and breath which he continued to develop in the books that followed.
42. NONE OF THE ABOVE, the anthology I edited in the early 1970s that came out in ’76—the poetry of everyone in it had an impact on me (I said I wouldn’t include friends, and many in this anthology weren’t friends, at least not yet, but several were), too many to name here (thirty-two poets included and others who I wanted but for various legal and other reasons the publisher excluded).
Like I said, there’s probably tons more, but…