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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Memoir of Reading (2)

My father gave me books like the Kennedy Introduction and the 1973 edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. After working through the Kennedy book at least a dozen times, I studied the Norton endlessly when I was 14, 15, and 16, reading it from cover to cover over and over again. From there, I discovered my first poetic hero: E.E. Cummings, buying many of his books for about a dollar each and eventually splurging for the Complete Poems. The appeal of Cummings was double: his praise of love and springtime fed satisfied my adolescent sentimentality, while his handling of verse forms allowed me to sharpen my ear. My allegiance shifted a little later to William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and John Berryman. I began to read the complete works of these poets, which my father checked out of the library for me. It was here that I discovered for the first time, that great poets produced vast numbers of poems of much less briiliance than the anthology pieces. I loved Stevens’s “Disillusionment of 10 O’Clock,” perhaps the first poem that gave me a shock of recognition in X.J. Kennedy’s Introduction, and “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and a few other of his poems, but looking at his complete poems was disenheartening—with, what for me, was the long-winded pomposity of many of his long poems and the preciosity of many minor pieces.  At the same time, I did find other poems that almost nobody else but Stevens scholars typically read, and learned the pleasure of discernment: I was the one who could decide what poems were worth saving.  
I read novels as well. I Read the Lord of the Rings during the summer after fifth grade, and then every summer after that until I tired of it. I re-read The Cave by Robert Penn Warren several times, and read almost all of John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, including the new novels that he would publish in the late 1970s. In Junior High I read all of Kurt Vonnegut, who became strangely unreadable to me after Breakfast of Champions. Before I was 12 or so, I had read children’s or “young adult” books for hours on end. But after that I preferred material written for adult, including Henry Miller novels like Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. I’ve gone back to fiction occasionally over the course of my life, whether for pleasure or for professional reasons, and at one point read most of the Latin American “boom” and more than forty novels by Benito Pérez Galdós. This memoir, though, is mostly about my reading of poetry. I developed a taste for the novels of Elmore Leonard as an adult, admiring him mostly for his prose style. Because of a professional deformation, I tend to read novels for their poetic quality, by which I don’t mean spurious lyricism but prosodic vigor.  

At some point I realized that the poems in the Norton Anthology by Frank O’Hara were my favorites. I also liked what I saw there of John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Ted Berrigan. James Schuyler and Barbara Guest would have to wait, but I was (and am) a firm devotee of the New York School. I had subscribed to the American Poetry Review by this time, and they did an O’Hara number with a chapter from Marjorie Perloff’s book. Around this time, too, Ashbery won all the prizes for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

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