Poets in their Youth

I did that "20 Books of Poetry" meme on Facebook and have enjoyed reading the lists generated by other people.

Except that it sparked a good case of neurosis in me as practically no one shares affection for the books I chose. I think about 3 books I picked have ended up on other people's lists.

And it's, you know, an exercise in inauthenticity, doing this list thing. At the moment I wrote the list, I chose the books that stuck out in my memory. If I were to be excessively honest, the first poet whose work I read in great depth was John Updike. I was in high school, it was the biggest book of poetry I could find at Half Price Books (and therefore, the greatest value for my Wal-Mart dollar), and so I read it.

From then on, not being an English major in college, I read uninformedly, continuing in a tradition of reading each year's Best American Poetry anthology and being sparked mostly by the work I read there, not fully understanding then the implications or ramifications of anthology inclusion/exclusion.

I don't like a lot of the poetry I should like. I remember teachers in my MFA program looking at me with great sympathy and confusion when I said I'd rather stick red hot pokers through my eyes than read any more Wallace Stevens (the only poem of his I can stomach is "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"). I actually described Stevens's poems as "word noise" in that class. I would rather replace my shower soap with sandpaper than have to read Elizabeth Bishop's Collected Poems again. And I, too, dislike almost all of Marianne Moore's poems.

The list of poets who've shaped me in the negative is probably longer than its companion list.

Sometimes I wonder if this means something significant about the quality of my own work. Something, you know, I don't want to hear.

And it's true, too, that I've drawn much of my poetic inspiration from watching widely of cinema. I could easily scrap out a list of films that make me want to write great poems. To wit:

Citizen Kane
Cleo from 5 to 7
Rear Window
The 400 Blows
Moulin Rouge
All About My Mother
Dead Again
Myra Breckinridge
V for Vendetta
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Bonnie and Clyde

That was a 30-second list. A longer reflection would lend itself to more certainty, but there you are.

I think The First Risk owes a great structural debt to Poison, for example, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon reflects my obsession with Lost.

Generally, I think I should read more poetry.


  1. I also take many of my inspirations from film and music, which I think is the case with many of the poets on my list. I have to confess I've never read an entire edition of "Best American Poetry"...I don't even own a copy. Nor do I want to.

  2. And here I've always worried that I was influenced by movies (lots and lots of movies) instead of, you know, Milton, Lowell, Auden, and so on. I'm always self-guilt-tripped by interviews with poets where they talk about reading Bishop, Tennyson, Browning when they were 10.

    And if you ever write a poem about Citizen Kane, I will pay cash money for it.

  3. I love reading, but also other media...I think we're probably representative of our generation (wait, Charles, you are in generation X, right?)in that we've been equally impressed in our youth by, for instance, movies, music, comic books, even computers, as we were by classical literature.

  4. Have you started KA-CHING! ? It is a poetic good time. I love the beauty and passion in the Duhamel's poems about the accident.

  5. It's comforting to know that there are other poets out there who feel as I do, and that perhaps I shouldn't feel ashamed for reading 10x as much fiction as poetry!