My father would drop me off at Serendipity Books in Berkeley. I would spend hours there, fancying myself a book collector. There I discovered Tony Towle and Joseph Ceravolo, who had each one the Frank O’Hara award. My father was a literate sociologist whose favorite author was Proust, so I think my poetic impulses would not have been nurtured in the same way in a different household. My mother also reads voraciously, and I grew up simply reading whatever books were on the shelves, including my father’s history and social science books and his subscription to the New York Review of Books. I used to love reading the letters to the editor in this journal and the withering responses of the original reviewers. Of course, I could never judge the merits of the case, but I embraced this style of controversy.
My parents didn’t have very many poetry books, but they had the Oxford Anthology of American Verse and some Louis Untermeyer anthologies—that sort of thing. At one point my father asked me to give him a series of poesm to read: I would do so and then he would make me defend them. Why did Cummings write out the word mister in “Buffalo Bill’s Defunct” rather than use the abbreviation Mr? (That was an easy one to answer.) I suppose because of the father I had, I could never tolerate anti-intellectual approaches to poetry. Whatever the excesses and blind-spots of academic criticism, I felt that you had to be well-read and intelligent about poetry, and that a poet had to be an intellectual of a kind. Of course, many poets are not, and I have often felt uncharitable toward their cognitive limitations, even when I felt also that some smart poets of the Howard Nemerov type were not as talented as they were smart.
I had free access to my paternal grandmother’s extensive personal library as well. She read mostly fiction and biography, but my grandfather had some poetry books on one shelf in that room—in a house down the street from us. He had some Robert Hillyer books that took a dim view of the modernism I loved, and I enjoyed reading them for their utter stupidity. There was something I relished in these impassioned polemics.
Neruda and Aleixandre had won the Nobel prize in the 1970s, and many American poets were translating from the Spanish or at least highly interested in such poets. Since I had not been a good student in High School, my grasp of French grammar was spotty, so I switched to Spanish for my language requirement in college, hoping to learn the language perfectly from the beginning. I translated some poems by Juan Ramón Jiménez and Federico García Lorca as I was learning Spanish, but my efforts as a translator have not shown strong results—even now, many years later. I went to study in Madrid for my junior year, with the express purpose of becoming an expert twentieth century Spanish poetry. The first book I bought in Spain in the summer of 1979 was a collection of the love poems of Miguel Hernández, in a bookstore in San Sebastián where we staying for an intensive language program before going to Madrid.
I was surprised and disappointed to discover that Lorca was not an influential figure for contemporary Spanish poets. In Spain he was a historic figure, not a living presence like he was in the US when I first discovered his work. I did take a course on Lorca, Aleixandre, and Guillén from José Luis Cano, who had known these poets personally. More significantly, I studied with Claudio Rodríguez, the greatest Spanish poet of the postwar period. Later, I would write my dissertation on him. At this particular juncture, Rodríguez’s books were out of print. He was an alcoholic and…