One day in Mexico in the spring of 1963, I was chatting about poetry with my then new and now old friend, the painter Bruce McGrew. I'd been writing poetry, or trying to write poetry, or working towards one day being able to write real poetry for six or seven years. I hadn't published anything yet, and I'd experienced poetry mostly as a labor I'd assigned myself, a task I toiled at, scribbling and studying and constantly thinking, brooding, going crazy about.
The first poem I ever loved is being written by a child in a language I will never understand.
As a boy, during the war (the story would always begin "during the war"), there was Churchill on the radio reciting Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," which brought that great poet to my attention and led me to his "Constab Ballads," the first book of poetry I was able, successfully, to commit to memory (just before being released from the Home that first time). I remember, as if it were another life, those nights that Khlebnikov was my babysitter. After giving me a hot plate of Campbell's Vegetarian Baked Beans with cut-up franks, and then tucking me into bed, he would perform "Incantation by Laughter"--a magical journey into a world neither here nor there, yet always close at hand. Although I also admired his "supersaga" Zangezi, which he wrote while bouncing me on his knee (or so it has often seemed), I was definitely partial to his shorter zaum poems.
My first love was a tall, thin brunette named "The Flea" by John Donne that I met when I was in college. Prior to that, of course, I had been exposed to many species of writing, great and small.
Not ever having thought to be a poet, it's hard to recall what most moved me toward it when young--except for what was part and parcel of our usual small town life, my older sister Helen's own interests in poetry, my Aunt Bernice's occasional contributions of poems for the various editorial pages of the newspapers where she lived, my grandmother's store of remembered verses.
First love? Who knows. Something in the mother tongue, I suppose. What I remember is my mother singing: Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do! I'm half crazy over the love of you. So she was, I knew, half crazy over the love of me. Or Hello Patsy Fagan, you're the apple of my eye. So I was the apple of her eye. A strange thing. Or, You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey.
When my youngest son was about five, he fell giddily in love with a Shakespeare comedy he had found on a BBC TV program. He was truly delighted by the pageantry, the slapstick, costumes, music and general air of festivity. He wanted more. And so, when students at the university where I was teaching put on a production of Macbeth, my wife and I, carefully explaining that this tragedy would be pretty different from the highjinks he had so loved, asked him if he would like to go. He was emphatic, and he loved the show.
In grammar school when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, Miss Blomberg exhorted us to memorize work by such sterling American poets as Longfellow, Whittier, and Lowell. Gold stars were given out to those who could rise, face the class, and recite flawlessly, or nearly so, parts of "Tell me not, in mournful numbers / Life is but an empty dream" or "Blessings on thee, little man, / Barefoot boy with cheek of tan!" or, in my case, a sizable chunk of James Russell Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal."
I have to confess that my first loves in poetry were outmoded and half-forgotten things that our teachers read aloud. I went to grade school in a small, industrial city (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania) with a large immigrant population: Italian, Polish, Greek, Hungarian and Romanian. This made for a somewhat rough-and-tumble atmosphere. But we had some splendid teachers.
I always knew I liked poetry more than anything. More than boys. More than butterflies. More than fresh sheets on a hot St. Louis night. I'm not sure I liked poetry more than dancing or Jackie Wilson. Or sleeping on the second-floor screened porch when even fresh sweet sun-dried sheets were no match for the weight of the air of my sister's wandering limbs.
My first knowledge of poetry, in junior high and high school, was Homer and Shakespeare; and Greek tragedies, which are also poetry. I went to Reed College, where I took a poetry course from Kenneth Hansen in which we read Williams, Moore, Eliot, Stevens and Pound. I remember loving the poems of Williams, Stevens, and Moore.
Thanks to lullabies, prayers, and Mother Goose, I had this much by heart before I could talk: Words say that people are present. And some words come together to make a place. It takes shape in the little stillness it causes to surround it, pleasing both speaker and listener.
My first love was the poetry of Ecclesiastes. Simpler than silence, exacting as music, possibly a little nasty, the Preacher's voice entered the classroom and tested everything.
Perhaps it was how the poem's title first wedded my tongue, without any hesitation, conscious negotiation, or humbug: "Annabel Lee." It seemed as if some deep part of myself already knew the rhythm and emotion of this name—a Southernness in its music. But Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee" also ushered in a disquieting mystery and the strange feeling of eavesdropping on something almost taboo.