The Poetry of Our Youth
Why can’t I hear the music of my youth with objectivity? I really don’t know if The Unforgettable Fire is a great album or not because I loved U2 so ardently in high school that the profound and sticky wistfulness of unfulfilled teenage desire roars back to life at each listening. Of course, many songs I still like from that time I know are trite, like my fondness for Nu Shooz’s “I Can’t Wait.” But I cannot resist it, I cannot.
Is this the same with the poetry of my youth? Not so much. I can’t read Sylvia Plath’s poems without a frigid hand still clenching my heart: “The blood jet is poetry, / There is no stopping it.” I idolized and identified with Plath, like so many young, unhappy poets, and her final poems remain great—anyone who says otherwise is a stinkerbutt (as my three-year-old daughter suggests right now). But Anne Sexton doesn’t do anything for me anymore. In my teens, I ate her words up. The poems now seem self-aggrandizing and formally dull. I cannot read them.
I wondered if the youthful loves of other poets lingered or evaporated, so I asked some (listed with their most recent books).
ROSA ALCALÁ (Undocumentaries, Shearsman 2010)
In Undocumentaries, I write, “A girl like me falls in love/ with Yeats/ and never recovers/ from the stretch/ of recognition.” This girl was me, and Yeats came to me via The Smiths while I was in high school (“Keats and Yeats are on your side”).
Is this completely embarrassing? Maybe, but I guess the best pop music should enlarge our worlds. I read Yeats for several years, beyond my initial crush based on a picture of him, young and curly-locked, on the cover of the book (I’m thinking of something Julie Carr said at the Off the Page Symposium in Tucson—that our poetry crushes are really a crush on the work; we have crushes on poetry). Since I hadn’t read him in a quite a while, I returned to some poems today and relived my first thrilling encounter with the Crazy Jane poems, as well as the naughtiness of “The Chambermaid’s Second Song”: “His rod and its butting head/ limp as a worm.” I was 16, after all, and reading him in my bedroom, in my parents’ house. He seemed a link to another world, and more than a crush on him, I probably had a crush on what he was—a poet, which is what I wanted to become. I later encountered Frank O’Hara and Bernadette Mayer, and that world became New York, just a bus-ride away. They embodied, like Yeats, my vision of what it was to be a poet, but they also seemed more like me than not. Maybe that is why I continue to read them.
MICHAEL DUMANIS (My Soviet Union: Poems, Juniper Prize for Poetry 2007)
Most poems I read in high school were free-verse confessional narratives punctuated by quiet epiphanies. I was bored. I had thought of poetry as music, as prayer. I wanted to feel something. Then I encountered T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men.” I became obsessed with Eliot’s grand declarations and sonically rich textures. Every line felt quotable. In college, I fell for a girl who had scrawled the entirety of “Prufrock” in miniature letters onto her converse high-tops. She stormed out of my apartment once after writing on my wall, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” But I got over her, and beyond Eliot, who now seems a little quaint to my ear, preachy, perhaps insincere? Another early obsession was John Berryman, and that has been harder to shake. I am moved by the drunken juxtapositions and the meandering, flirtatious wit of the Dream Songs now the same way I was when I first read, “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so,” and, “The weather was fine. They took away his teeth, white & helpful; bothered his backhand; halved his green hair.” The more I read Berryman, the more I trust him.
CAMILLE T. DUNGY (Smith Blue, Crab Orchard Series in Poetry 2011)
I'm not sure I can answer this question. For one thing, I was pretty lucky to have grown up in a bookish house, so I had access to "sophisticated" poetry early on and was encouraged to read it from the start. For another, even the work that I don't aspire to any longer because it's too "simple" or "falsely sentimental" still contains kernels I know I learned from. I can no more disavow its importance than I can deny the importance of TANG to a certain stage of my development. I know now how to access reader's emotions through easy or artificial means and what the implications of such tactics are over the long run, and that knowledge is important, too.
MARK LEVINE (The Wilds, New California Poetry, U of CA Press 2006)
Sometimes I'm mortified to think that my deepest tastes were established in High School. I got my first taste of Eliot and Wallace Stevens, who were mystifying, but who have remained the most crucial modern poets to me. I read Samuel Beckett and listened to Bob Dylan and the Talking Heads, and that is probably all I would need to confess about a constellation of influences in life and in writing. I'm still soft on Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Plath and even Robert Service, all from High School. Whatever enthusiasms I had from that time that dwindled have been forgotten or--as with most things adolescent--repressed.
KATIE PETERSON (This One Tree, New Issues Poetry Prize 2006)
When I was sixteen I thought I WAS Emily Dickinson. And I still do. Her restraint is my still-fixed idea of what human nature engaged in heroic fortitude should be. And I wanted to be a hero when I was sixteen. Apparently, I thought heroism was debating between two dire non-opposites ("The difference between despair and fear"). When I think of Dickinson I think of her doubles. Dialectical thinking, from her lawyer-father (my father is also a lawyer), I bet they fought in that dark kitchen for hours (wait maybe that was me and my father).
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Irish poet Medbh McGuckian. She was the first poet I read who I kind of thought, ok, if she can do it I can do it. I was enthralled and mystified by her figures of speech. "My mind was savagely made up / like a serious sofa moved underneath a north window." Then I went through some phase, you know, like a decade-long phase where I repudiated the use of metaphor (fat chance, Katie) and kind of refused to myself to read her work. Now I love her again for totally different reasons, because I see the depth of her loneliness and the complexity of her happiness. She said in an interview that she wrote poems "to baffle men." Apparently, when I was younger I thought this position was juvenile. Now I love it!
ELÉNA RIVERA (The Perforated Map, Shearsman 2011)
My favorite poet in high school was Rainer Maria Rilke, especially his Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies. I loved the sound of the language in the translation I had; it opened, broadened space, heightened my awareness of mystery and beauty in the world. I read Rilke only occasionally now, not because the poems are no longer important to me, but because I don’t think of him, that is until I think of him. Otherwise a vagabond I went to three different public high schools and in the shuffle missed poetry, I read novels and plays (was passionate about theater then). I don’t think I’d read Ibsen now, but I do read Chekhov.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night…
The footlights of my head are lit again
And the room I live in is finally bright.
EMILY WILSON (Micrographia, University of Iowa 2009)
Your query immediately brings to mind my long relationship with A.R. Ammons's work, probably more than any other. I still remember stumbling across "Corsons Inlet" in an anthology of contemporary poetry, back in high school. It really blew my mind, that a poem could be that open and wandering, that free, and yet utterly specific too. I feel like over the years I've been through so many revolutions with him, many phases of outright adoration, questioning, and sometimes even struggle. And long periods away. But the basic affinity remains, and that initial powerful experience stays with me. When I do get back, I find there is always more there to be discovered.
- Anne Sexton
- Allen Ginsberg
- Wallace Stevens
- Rosa Alcalá
- Emily Dickinson
- John Berryman
- Frank O'Hara
- Sylvia Plath
- T.S. Eliot
- Bernadette Mayer
- Dylan Thomas
- Katie Peterson
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
- Rainer Maria Rilke
- Elizabeth Robinson
- Camille Dungy
- A.R. Ammons
- Michael Dumanis
- Mark Levine
- Elena Rivera
- Emily Wilson
- The Smiths
- Pierre Reverdy
- Medbh McGuckian
- National Poetry Month 2013
Born in Seattle and raised in Pittsburgh, poet Camille Guthrie earned a BA at Vassar College and an MFA at Brown University. She is the author of the poetry collections The Master Thief (2000), In Captivity (2006), and Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois (2013). Her experimental long poems and inter-textual poetic sequences often engage...