Poultry: I like chicken any way you fix it.
Oh, poetry: I’m a bit fussier, and I get moldy-figgier the older I get. My tastes were formed as an undergrad. Before: Kipling and Robert Service and e.e. cummings and the Child ballads. After: cummings, Frost, Donne, Auden, Hopkins, Yeats, Housman, Larkin, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Dickinson, MacNeice. Early, late, and eternally: Shakespeare and Chaucer and Dante.
Bits of some poems have been lodged in my brain for decades–Frost’s “The Star-Splitter,” Auden’s “Law Like Love,” Housman’s “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” Russell Edson’s “A Performance at Hog Theater,” Nemerov’s “The Goose Fish,” cummings’ “Ponder, darling.” And most of Hamlet, along with major chunks of Twelfth Night, Much Ado, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, The Tempest, and King Lear. This may explain why I can’t remember the date of my next dental appointment.
Over the years I’ve read and written a lot about poetry, though only a few pieces have ever gotten into my collections of essays. I early on discovered that many publishers charged outrageous permission fees, which compounded with the overall hassle, made it easier just to leave out modern poetry. But I’ve written about or love–to mention some that deserve to be better known– Geoffrey Hill, L.E. Sissman, Charlotte Mew, Ralph Hodgson, Jane Kenyon, James Schuyler, and–a friend as well as a great poet–Anthony Hecht. My favorite poet of all is Baudelaire, with Marlowe, Herbert, Pope, Wordsworth, Hardy, Cavafy, Yeats, Akhmatova,, Eliot, Stevens, Auden and Larkin being in my starting line-up. Among translations I like David Ferry’s Horace quite a bit and Pound’s various versions. By my bedside I keep The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation and Martin Gardner’s two collections of “chestnuts,” Best Remembered Poems and whatever the other is called.
I don’t think poetry influences how I write at all. No, let me take that back. It does show me how to make every word count and I do like to bury poetic allusions and quotations in my prose, usually without italics and sometimes slightly inaccurately. A gentleman should always quote from memory. Being a journalist, I’m leery of anything overtly lyrical–maple syrup, one of my editors used to call it–and I lack that fundamental gift for metaphor: Nothing ever reminds me of anything else. My focus remains on nouns, verbs and the syntax of the sentence, even as I strive to actually say something and not be boring.
Yes — there are a few poets that I have devoted myself to over a long time, slowly reading and rereading. Fundamental to me in this sense are Wallace Stevens and Philip Larkin. Less obsessively studied: Mark Strand, W. B. Yeats. Auden. Frost. Usual suspects, I suppose.
And to sort of “keep up” I read the magazine Poetry. I should read the poems in the New Yorker too (I read everything else) but for reasons I can’t work out those poems don’t work for me in that context.
And, as Michael Dirda’s post reminded me, the remarkable Geoffrey Hill.
I haven’t read James’s books, but I find his reviews of poetry in Poetry excellent and refreshing, and yes, sometimes funny in the service of truth.
F. Brett Cox
Poetic Inspiration: My tastes here are by and large very conventional, as I unapologetically return time and again to the British Romantics (especially Coleridge and Keats) and the American High Modernists (Eliot, Stevens, Williams, cummings–Pound not so much). Of course, there was more going on inside Emily Dickinson’s head than the rest of them put together.
My recent discovery of the plays of Sarah Kane was as significant an aesthetic slap in the face as I’ve had in years.
And I’d also have to mention half a hundred musicians and songwriters, from Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams to Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards to Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith to Chuck D to PJ Harvey to whomever I discover next week. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the music I love means more to me than any book I’ve ever read.
Good to see Bob Dylan mentioned. Those my age (I’m a few months older than he is) will likely have had tags and lines and stanzas in their heads for fifty years, just long enough ago for those my age to wish they’d been a few years younger when they first heard him, so they could be more like baby ducks doing imprint.
Like Michael (Dirda) and (I suspect) Peter (Straub) and others talking here, there is a hemi-demi-semi-iambic pentameter ostinato running through what we write, fiction or nonfiction, which needs constant violation (like what gardeners do) to stay alive. Out of this basic pulse of story, for me, the tags emerge like dolphins: Dylan, Yeats most often for me. But if we read poetry at all regularly — my own list includes some of Peter’s, some others, and also, in no particular order, Franz Wright, Roy Fuller, Frederick Seidel, Frank Bidart, Emily Dickinson (the Helen Vendler annotated collection keeps staring you in the face with genius), Leonard Cohen (more the lyrics than the poems as such), Ben Miller (I think) of Low Anthem — then vigilance must be eternal, like.
Ah well, looks like I just stayed in Mississippi a day too long.