Follow Harriet on Twitter
Journal, Day Three
3: ON PUBLISHING MY FIRST BOOK OF POEMS IN THIRTY YEARS
But life doesn’t always conspire to allow us to write all the poems that we want. Everybody has to work a job. Lots of people’s marriages fall apart (mine did), and still they manage to be extraordinarily productive and bang out books every couple of years. I don’t know how they do it. I read a lot of these books and find one or two poems in them that move me. Maybe I could have done the same thing. It seems to be a good literary strategy. At least the name recognition continues, and perhaps if I had been able to do it, I wouldn’t be writing this essay, trying to explain where I’ve been all of these years.
There are other factors that hindered me from writing poems or from publishing very much, and I want to spend the last part of this essay outlining them. Perhaps I’ll rile up some people with what I want to say, but this account would be useless if I didn’t go further.
I “grew up” as a poet in the New York School, first at Columbia, where students like David Shapiro (who published his first book of poems, January, at the age of seventeen) matriculated and where Kenneth Koch taught. Not long afterwards I began going down to the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where I took a workshop and ended up teaching two of them myself there in the mid-seventies. I found the scene there enormously attractive. Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett were already big guns, Tom Clark was still around, Anne Waldman was making her reputation, and there was a sense of camaraderie unlike anything I had ever experienced except among jazz musicians. Everybody’s hair was getting longer by the day. We all thought we knew who was writing the best poetry, why it was superior, and that we were at the heart of the action. In the late sixties most graduate programs in creative writing hadn’t yet gotten off the ground, and here was the best of it, we thought—for free!
I was devouring anything that I could find by Kenneth Koch (I took two courses with him at Columbia), John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara (who had been killed in the summer of 1966, and whom I never met), James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest, as well as slightly older and younger poets who made the Poetry Project scene. Allen Ginsberg was beginning to make his presence felt at the Project. I read a lot of people, though, and was also excited about the work of Robert Bly and the poets gathered around his magazines, The Fifties and The Sixties. Bly was also opening the doors to French, Spanish, and Scandinavian poets via his and the translations of others. I also spent the end of the sixties at the School of the Arts at Columbia University, studying with Stanley Kunitz and Adrienne Rich in the M.F.A. writing program.
In 1973 I went into therapy with a psychologist whom I was to work with, on and off, for thirty years. There’s no doubt in my mind that as I probed my own life-issues and tried to mend the holes in my own personality that had led me to seek help, it pushed me to scrutinize what I was doing as a poet. At some point I began to question the New York School esthetic or, rather, to examine what that esthetic permitted and didn’t permit in writing. I noticed, for example, that certain “subject matter” (always a taboo idea to me and my friends) was off limits. It was considered “corny” to write about things. What was foremost was to work with language. If your language was alive enough, content would be dragged along in its wake. It was verboten to write about death, suffering, loss, breakdown, disappointment in love, and even about love itself (except in a flip way). These subjects were reserved for the Confessional Poets (Lowell, Plath, Berryman, Sexton, etc.), whose self-serving melodramas, we felt, may have supplied them with plenty to write about, but at what cost to themselves? The tonal emphasis was on a wiseguy, comic stance that certainly was delightful given the darkness and misery that seemed, for most poets, to be stock-in-trade. Kenneth Koch was extraordinarily funny, and opened me up to my own sense of humor, something that had not made much of an appearance in my writing before I encountered him.
Koch would become most famous after publishing his book about teaching children how to write poetry, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams (1970). But was the kingdom of poetry divided up into wishes, lies, and dreams? Wasn’t there room for grief, terror, darkness? Was poetry essentially the stuff of fantasy? As I came to grips with my own psyche, I had to confront what I felt—what I really felt—about my parents, my friends, the women in my life, my education, the Catholic Church, and an armada of dreams that didn’t exactly leave me whistling when I woke up from them. How could I fashion that material into poems? What about my life, the stories that I told, the things that had happened to me, that had exalted or wounded me? Kenneth wasn’t working this ground, it seemed to me, nor was John Ashbery, whose work dazzled me but left me feeling inadequate to it. Frank O’Hara’s poems I loved, but even he skated only on the edges of his personal darkness. James Schuyler (whose first book, Freely Espousing, I would reprint with SUN in 1979) had by then brought out The Crystal Lithium (1972) and Hymn to Life (1974), books in which he opened himself in extraordinary ways to the reader, making him, for me, the true Confessional Poet of the New York School. If my struggles weren’t the same as Jimmy’s, he certainly provided a powerful model for telling the truth in poetry that I could use.
My friend and first poetry teacher Harvey Shapiro introduced me to Charles Reznikoff, a charming old man who had been mostly been publishing his own books at his own expense for years. What struck me about Reznikoff’s work was its storytelling. New York School poetry wasn’t about telling stories, which were considered old-fashioned. But isn’t this what most of our experience resolves itself into—the stories we tell to ourselves and to others, the stories we, in fact, become? Reznikoff could offer the anecdote of a New York street moment or tackle the Holocaust in a book-length poem. As I explored his work, I saw that I too could tell the stories that I was carrying around within me. More and more I wanted others to experience what I had felt, and the story is the vehicle by which feeling is transmitted from person to person, writer to reader. Harvey Shapiro’s own work also offered me a model of how to do this, and I would find it in William Carlos Williams and in the work of poets like Cesare Pavese, whose book Hard Labor had been magnificently translated by William Arrowsmith. My friend Phillip Lopate was writing stunning poems (before he turned to the personal essay and longer forms), and the two books that I published by him—The Eyes Don’t Always Want to Stay Open (1972) and The Daily Round (1976) inspired me as well.
My focus on poetry as a vessel for feeling was sharpened by the arrival of the Language poets, as they came to be called. One of the most notable of them, before that label was affixed, was a friend of mine, and in my “fun with words” period we would collaborate through the mail, sending each other sheets of paper on which words had been randomly typed. My tendency was to “connect the dots,” to find ways that the words cohered into some kind of image or image-pattern. The sheets were returned to me with the connections obliterated. After this had gone on for a while, I wrote my friend to say, “What’s the story? I draw things together and you tear them apart.” “That’s the way it’s going to be,” he wrote back to me. I ended the collaboration (and the friendship). I realized that I wanted to use language to make connections, not to destroy them. I had a little ways to go to understand the next steps in this process: that I wanted words to connect to what I had experienced and that I wanted readers to feel what I had experienced. This couldn’t be done through techniques of fragmentation. I wanted readers to understand and to feel my poems, not to turn away from them puzzled or feeling stupid.
That’s what I began to try to do in my poetry—touch the reader. It took me years of struggle to come to grips with my feeling-life, and I hope that the results are on display in Where X Marks the Spot.