Thursday, October 31, 2013

Poetic influences

My mind has been segueing all over the place.  Let me see if I can get the main thread(s) down.  Over the past couple of months, I have been reading a fair number of young and occasionally not-so-young poets who were clearly influenced by Frank O'Hara, most notably Denise Duhamel and now Artie Gold (an Anglophone poet based in Montreal who seemed equally influenced by O'Hara and Jack Spicer).  George Bowering writes in the introduction to the Collected Books of Artie Gold that when he first encountered (and taught!) Gold, O'Hara was barely being read by Canadian lit. majors or poets, though the situation has certainly changed with time.  (I wonder if those that followed O'Hara early in his career all became poets themselves, much like the thousand or so people who bought the first Velvet Underground record -- all of whom supposedly went on to form their own bands...  RIP Lou Reed.)

O'Hara came to my attention in my second year of undergrad when I got into a poetry writing course with a professor who had known a lot of the key figures from the New York school.  At least that is how I remember being introduced to O'Hara's works, though of all the figures the professor brought to my attention, I suspect I would have encountered O'Hara through Donald Allen's New American Poetry anthology or somewhere else, since over time, O'Hara has become so influential.  Still, I might have not paid nearly as much attention had my attention not been focused.  Other poets that the professor promoted included Ted Berrigan, Faye Kicknosway, John Sinclair, Jim Harrison, Jim Gustafson and I believe Ed Sanders.  Some of whom remain very obscure.  The following summer, at NELP, I was introduced to the work of Jane Kenyon, though unfortunately she was too ill to actually meet the class, which would have been quite memorable, I am sure.  I think all of the other poets that I have read, I mostly found out about them by reading widely and then following the poets that these poets looked up to.  More recently I have occasionally followed leads generated by listserv discussions or even Amazon suggestions.  To circle back very briefly to Bowering, I definitely see lots of flashes of humor and playfulness in his work, which could certainly be found in O'Hara or Ted Berrigan for that matter.  However, unless I am totally misremembering what Bowering wrote in an essay, he was more inspired by some of the Beats, particularly Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Olson and some of the others in the Black Mountain School.  I'm not really sure I see that (the Olson influence), but to be fair, I have not cracked Olson's Maximus Poems (something to start if I ever finish Pound's Cantos I guess). 

I'll try to wrap this up quickly as I still have a review (of Bowering's Vermeer's Light incidentally) to get to.  While there are a lot of very disparate poets that I like quite a bit, and even some where I share a somewhat similar poetic sensibility, I just am not sure I would consider myself that influenced by any particular poet.  But perhaps someone else would feel differently.  Anyway, I will list my top 10 favorite poets (in alphabetical order) and then another group of 15 that I rate very highly.

Paul Blackburn (my favorite Black Mountain poet*)
T.S. Eliot
Faye Kicknosway
Philip Levine
Audre Lorde
Frank O'Hara
Sharon Olds (but stopping at The Father!) 
Adrienne Rich
Anne Sexton
Charles Simic

John Berryman
Robert Creeley
Emily Dickinson
Alan Dugan
Jane Kenyon
Galway Kinnell
August Kleinzahler
W.S. Merwin
Marge Piercy
Charles Reznikoff
Harvey Shapiro
Gary Snyder
Gary Soto
Wallace Stevens
W.B. Yeats

A few thoughts.  Had I drawn this list up 10 years ago, I probably would have included some Beat poets such as Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti; however, my tastes have changed and Beat poetry in general hasn't held up that well in my view. I probably would also have put Yeats in the higher category and possibly included Dylan Thomas in the second category.  I might have included W.C. Williams, but I don't find I read him for pleasure, so while I respect him and his work, he doesn't really belong here.  That might change some day if I really delve into his work (as I once did with Wallace Stevens).  Langston Hughes and E.E. Cummings are sort of just off the edge of the list, partly because they wrote so much, and yet only a relatively few poems speak to me. (One could say the same about Blackburn or O'Hara, whose poetic output was high but the quality was highly variable to say the least, but even their weaker poems spoke to me more.)

For better or worse, the list does not include any poetry in translation.  It is much harder to justify how U.S.-centric it is (to say nothing of the fact that nearly all of these are 20th Century poets with only a small handful still publishing in the 21st Century), but these generally are the poets that write within a space/context that makes sense to me, and certainly it is not a fluke that most of them are urban poets.  I am still sort of feeling my way into the Canadian canon, but I would say that Robert Kroetsch is probably my favourite Canadian poet, followed by George Bowering, then Louis Dudek and Al Purdy. W. H. New is in there somewhere as well.

I'll close with a relatively short list of poets whom I respect in the abstract but haven't read enough of their work to truly know them.  It is possible that after I did that I would rate them higher and put them on one of these lists some day.  Perhaps time will tell...

W.H. Auden
John Betjeman
Basil Bunting
Randall Jarrell
Maxine Kumin
Denise Levertov
Howard Nemerov
Kenneth Rexroth
Theodore Roethke
Muriel Rukeyser
Delmore Schwartz
W.C. Williams

* Honestly, I would not characterize Blackburn as a Black Mountain poet -- he is much closer, in my mind, to the New York School (O'Hara in particular) -- but that's where he is generally placed, so whatcha gonna do?

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