Birth of a Sound: Poetry Birthdays
Right now, somewhere on this planet, a poet is being born.
Once, for a whole year, I organized my reading life according to whose birthday occasioned a visit to the bookshelf. Normally I would choose the poet’s most recent work and honor them with an oral reading, voicing their existence and vision. Other times I would reacquaint myself with a favorite poem or seek some theretofore unappreciated poem from an older volume. By no means did I do this everyday, but only when fancy struck.
What I discovered, surprisingly, is that a number of calendar days would feature at least one poet, but then there were days in which the universe seemed particularly kind to planet Earth and bestowed three or more poets on the same day, as if the cosmos needed its own supershot steroid.
For example, May 9th happens to be the date in which poets Charles Simic, Mona Van Duyn, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Henri Cole, and Jorie Graham were born. Can one imagine contemporary poetry without this quintet of talented lyricists? Their individual music, their sounds, have helped to shape how we listen and understand our lives in language. Their poems contribute to the eternal song of the human.
My own birthday, September 9th, is shared by Linda Gregg, Cesare Pavese, Sherod Santos, and Sonia Sanchez, who one evening in a classroom at Temple University, during a night course I was anxious to escape early to begin celebrating my 22nd birthday, was surprised by the appearance of her son Mungu, who delivered a bouquet of lilies. I thought this was beyond the serendipitous. I stayed the whole three hours thinking my gift was the rejoinder of the universe to my ignoring a significant presence in my life.
Other supershot days include: February 27th (Brad Leithauser, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Kenneth Koch); March 1st (Robert Hass, Robert Lowell, and Richard Wilbur); March 18th (Franz Wright, Michael Harper, Stephen Mallarme); March 27th (Brenda Hillman, Julia Alvarez, Louis Simpson); June 17th (David Mura, James Weldon Johnson, Ron Padgett); December 10th (Thomas Lux, Emily Dickinson, Carolyn Kizer, and August Kleinzahler); and February 8th (Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Lowell, and Lisel Mueller).
Such a means of managing one’s reading life in poetry would produce some unexpected results, as when on February 1st, sitting down to a sampling of Langston Hughes and Galway Kinnell, I considered the relative struggle towards freedom as evidenced by poets such as Mr. Hughes who articulated in his work a greater America and Mr. Kinnell’s years as a civil rights worker in Louisiana during the 1960s in order to see Hughes’s vision of America come to fruition, despite his personal safety.
Then again, I’d search for resemblances of themes by relatively obscure and barely discussed poets such as Frank Chin and Russell Atkins, both born February 25th. Or one could contemplate on October 7th, the singular yet eminent voices of Sherman Alexie and Amiri Baraka, whose piercing work in multi-genre writing advance a deeper appreciation of their respective cultural communities, but also a fierce insight into the absurdities of American oppression and genocide.
Analogous similarities could be found in the writings of Anne Carson and Paul Muldoon (June 20th); Eavan Boland and Frances E.W. Harper (September 24th); David Rivard and Bob Perelman (December 2nd); Nathaniel Mackey and John Berryman (October 25th), and Tony Hoagland and Sharon Olds (November 19th).
Other readings produce striking yet pleasurable dissonances: Kwame Dawes and John Ashbery (July 28th); Alan Shapiro and Audre Lorde (February 18th); Lucille Clifton and Frank O’Hara (June 27th), Robert Frost and Gregory Corso (March 26th); Arthur Sze and Eugene Redmond (December 12th); Louis Zukofsky and Derek Walcott (January 23rd); Sandra Gilbert and Charles Olson (December 27th); and Charles Bernstein and Maya Angelou (April 4th.)
One might even notice that probably a shared birthday with a poet became inspiration for someone to pursue a life of composing language into “art-song,” a celebrated kind of influence. Dorianne Laux and Philip Levine (January 10th), for instance, or Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7th) or Al Young and Walt Whitman who both celebrate their birthdays tomorrow May 31st.
I recommend highly, and afford here, a small listing of poets with shared birthdays, a mini-anthology of poets whose lumping seems to make more sense, and scintillatingly more inviting than some of the other means by which we assign poets to their corners. (This may just be the beginning of a truly diverse collection of poems.)
January 6th: Philip Shultz, Carl Sandburg, W.D. Snodgrass
January 14th: Dudley Randall, Marilyn Chin
February 4th: Baron Wormser, Agha Shahid Ali
February 9th: Alice Walker, Victor Hernandez Cruz
February 17th: Jack Gilbert, Meena Alexander
February 22nd: Gerald Stern, Edna St. Vincent Millay
April 18th: Bob Kaufman, C. Dale Young
April 24th: Robert Penn Warren, George Oppen
May 23rd: Stanley Plumly, Jane Kenyon
June 13th: Denise Duhamel, William Butler Yeats
July 17th: Sue Ellen Thompson, Luis Rodriguez, Alice Dunbar Nelson
July 31st: Kim Addonizio, Lorenzo Thompson
August 3rd: Hayden Carruth, Marvin Bell
August 5th: Linda Gregerson, Ron Silliman
August 12th: Donald Justice, J.D. McClatchy
August 16th: Charles Bukowski, Cleopatra Mathis
August 31st: Forrest Hamer, Charles Reznikoff
September 17th: William Carlos Williams, Carl Dennis
October 13th: Richard Howard, Askia Muhammad Toure
October 21st: Ai, Samuel Coleridge Taylor
November 9th: Anne Sexton, James Schuyler
November 11th: William Matthews, Alicia Ostriker
November 18th: Terrance Hayes, Margaret Atwood
December 22nd: Kenneth Rexroth, Sydney Lea
* * * * *
With only a few minutes to midnight, I still have time to say Happy Birthday to Countee Cullen, Garrett Hongo, and Elizabeth Alexander, who celebrate their births on this day.
Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...