The Goodwill near Hollywood in the late ’80s was filled with outdated lampshades, corny figurines, and myriad mugs. It was also where, for 50 cents each, one of us—Lynn, to be specific—purchased The American Poetry Anthology, edited by Daniel Halpern, and Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, by Diane Wakoski. As for Brett, he didn’t have to search the used-book bins; when he began writing poetry as a teenager, his older brother sent home volumes from college: Sharon Olds’s Satan Says, Mark Strand’s Selected Poems, and the poetry anthology Walk on the Wild Side.
Years later, when the two of us were talking about our early discoveries, it became apparent how much these collections had provided a gateway for us into the world of contemporary poetry. It was with the hope of providing a similarly exhilarating experience to emerging readers and poets that we compiled our anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation.
In editing, we felt it was important not just to bring contemporary poems to a younger audience but to bring contemporary poets to a younger audience. So much of the poetry taught in schools is written by long-dead poets, and we wanted the readers to get to know the poets as real people, with real, 21st-century lives.
To that end, we sent a questionnaire to all 100 poets included in the anthology, and we included excerpts of their answers in the biographical notes of the book. (You can view them in their entirety here.) We asked the poets questions such as “What is your favorite word?” and “What is the natural talent you would most like to have?” (One-third of the poets listed “singing.”)
For us, though, the most compelling answers were to the question “What was the first poem you read and loved?” For poets, this question seems to recall other first questions they might find themselves asked by a friend: Do you remember your first kiss, or the first concert you attended? It is a formative moment, fixed in poets’ minds, and each tells a story.
We realized that the poets’ answers to this question created a persuasive list for further reading, what we began to call a “shadow anthology.” The following is an edited selection of the responses we received on first-poetry loves, from what we consider to be some of the most exciting poets writing today.
I probably read a lot of poems before I ever fell in love with one—you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs, as they say—but I do remember the first poem that rocked my world: “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” by Wallace Stevens. I’ll never forget that drunk and dreaming sailor at the end.
One of the first poems I found and loved was in a book my grandfather left behind in our house, The World’s Best Poems, edited by Mark Van Doren, which I now keep on my office bookshelves. I was a gloomy little girl of about 11 or 12 and, upon reading that old book, went just crazy for Heinrich Heine, particularly the last stanza of “Mein Kind, Wir Waren Kinder”: “The children’s games are over, / The rest is over with youth— / The world, the good games, the good times, / The belief, and the love, and the truth.” I swooned over this gloomiest of poems and underlined those particular lines repeatedly, as if that would make the words spring to life.
The first poems I remember loving were among the things I read in high school English class: poems by Dickinson, Keats, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (if that counts); Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land. Later on I read Baudelaire, Plath, Rimbaud, and Sexton on my own, as well as other Stevens poems, including “Jasmine’s Beautiful Thoughts Underneath the Willow,” the first poem whose hold on me was so powerful I felt like I must have written it myself.
The first two books of poetry I ever owned were Been to Yesterdays: Poems of a Life, by Lee Bennett Hopkins, and a collection of Langston Hughes’s poems for children, Don’t You Turn Back. My mother was always reading Langston Hughes to my sister and me, and she would assign us poems from that book to memorize. At six I was reciting “My People,” and my sister, “Mother to Son,” for family friends. Been to Yesterdays was the first book of poems I ever picked out for myself. I remember staying up late at night and reading it under the covers with a flashlight. The experience of those two books is where I began as a writer. They’ve come with me on every move and are two of my most important possessions.
Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I know it is technically a work of fiction, but it reads like a poem to me. I remember staying up one night when I was 10 to read it for the first time and feeling very proud by the time the morning sun arrived that I had finished. The images have stuck with me all my life. Then, years later, at age 15, I first read Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103°” and I thought: “I want to write poems like this!”
When I was 12 or 13 I saw some E.E. Cummings poems and that was that—their weirdness was something that has sustained and challenged me ever since.
Erika L. Sanchez
I first became enamored with poetry when my sixth-grade teacher had us read Edgar Allan Poe. I was a fairly lonely and depressed 12-year-old, so Poe’s dark and gloomy poems really spoke to me. I specifically remember reading the poem “Alone,” and my first thought was something like “Wow! This creepy guy really understands me!”
The first poems I remember reading were “Alligator Pie” by Dennis Lee and Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” though perhaps it was actually my father who read them to me while I stared at the black marks on the pages, saying the words a half-second after he did, a little echo curled into him on the couch. I do recall spending every spare waking moment for what seemed like a week but could have been a month, reading Homer’s Iliad and somewhere near the end of the book being stoked to find out there was a sequel and that it was called The Odyssey. Lying on my bed, in this two-minute break between ending one book-length epic poem and starting another I was seized by a feeling, a strange mixture of anxiety and adrenaline.
Other than almost everything in Where the Sidewalk Ends, the first poem I loved was Etheridge Knight’s “Feeling Fucked Up.” I didn’t know poetry permitted cursing. More than that, it was the first time I felt like I got a poem.
My mom taught me “The Purple Cow” when I was very little. I loved it and the tragic story of the poet who could never outrun the fame of his nonsense verse, no matter how seriously he wanted to be taken.
I grew up in rural America, where everyone worked in factories and didn’t read much. As a result books, especially poetry books, were hard to come by, but Emily Dickinson was on our local library’s shelf. I fell in love with her poems, and remain in love with them. Don’t listen to any of the stories you will hear about Dickinson being a sad, wilting lily hiding in her Amherst house writing her sad poems. She was courageous! It’s simply not possible to have centuries of poetry come up to your doorstep and reject it all and write something new, and not be absolutely courageous. Emily Dickinson is my American hero.
My dad had about a thousand pens imprinted with the last two lines of “Invictus” by the poet William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate; / I am the captain of my soul.” My memory tells me that he added the phrase “By God’s grace,” but that could be a false memory, something to do with having so much of my young life in and about church. Those lines have followed me around my entire life; it was the only poetry (or snippet of poetry) we had in our house, and I both loved and hated the lines. Loved them because, of course, they inspire us to be individual, to control as much of our destiny as we can. Somehow, having the words trapped on pens, particularly those pens with the eraser tops, the heavy tip, the heavier ink, that stayed stored in my father’s drawer, made me question what, exactly, “fate” and “soul” were, for my father, for myself, for this writer whose name I did not know, but whose words my father, beyond the pens, said to us. It was the first time in my (very very young) life that I understood the true nature of words: they are stored in our blood, scratched into our bones; our taste buds are words; fingerprints, words.
Brett Fletcher Lauer is the deputy director of the Poetry Society of America and the poetry editor of A Public Space, and the author of the collection A Hotel In Belgium. In addition to co-editing several anthologies, including Isn’t It Romantic: 100 Love Poems by Younger American Poets, he is...
Lynn Melnick is the author of Landscape with Sex and Violence (YesYes Books, 2017) and If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012). She serves on the Executive Board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. She grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Brooklyn.