Los Touchstones

Which poets did you read when you first began writing? Of those, which ones do you still enjoy revisiting?

I think Wallace Stevens was the poet who jazzed me deeply first. The vividness of his imagery translated brightly and instantaneously in my head like a animated cartoon version of a painting by Joan Miro.

As a kid, I went through a rural public education system, and we didn’t read poets unless they were at least 100 years old. At college I found out that poetry was not, like the Latin language, dead. That was big. My teacher in fresh English struck me as Oscar Wilde with a Mississippi accent. Although my grades from the course were only average, I still have my journals from that year (age 17) when I discovered poetry. I copied poems straight from the pages of the Norton anthology. Besides Stevens, on those pages are verbatim Robert Creeley, Adrienne Rich, and James Tate. Although my poems look more like Creeley’s than Rich’s on the page, I’m pretty sure that I’ve inherited something from each of them. From Rich it is something about my identity as a poet, a lesbian, and an intellectual. With Creeley it’s more about poetics, and what the poem is supposed to be.

If you feel like it, tell the story about how your relationship with poetry began.

3 thoughts on “Los Touchstones

  1. e.e. cummings “anyone lived in a pretty how town” ushered me into my relationship with poetry when I was 7. My mom had this little book (her college poetry text, which fit perfectly into my 7 year old hands), and the poem was in there. It made total and, also, no sense to me whatsoever. I thought it was a perfect representation of reality.
    I attended Latin Mass every morning of my elementary school years, and that had a huge effect on my relationship to beautiful, exotic words.
    Then there was high school — BORING! — except for senior year in English when hated Mr. Victor brought a record player into class and played T.S. Eliot reading “The Hollow Men.” Maybe it was the Catholicism seeping out the end of that poem that caused me to swoon in recognition, but I fell in love with Eliot, of all people. I was a devout martyr-in-the-making in grade school, but a registered lapsed Catholic by high school. I think the poem appealed to my nostalgia; good poems often do. Good poems make me nostalgic for things I’ve never experienced. After that, I went to the library and STOLE the collected works of T.S. Eliot, which was the first book of poetry that I owned (okay, well, sort of owned). I still have the book. I had to steal it because I was banned from checking books out of the library due to a mountain of late fees. And, there was only one bookstore in our small town in California, and it didn’t have a poetry section to speak of. So I justified the crime as one of necessity and passion.
    In my late teens, I would drive up to South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, CA and spend hours in the poetry section of the Rizzoli bookstore there. The first two books of poetry I bought were Czeslaw Milosz’s Collected Poems and The Dead and the Living, by Sharon Olds. I chose those two because I liked the lines in Milosz’s poems the best, and Sharon Olds had wicked poems about her family. I had a wicked family, too. I had never heard of either poet before I found them on the shelves. I still crave Milosz. (I picked him up from Hobby Airport in 1991, when he was a featured reader at the Margaret Root Brown reading series here in Houston. I expected him to be a giant. He was rather troll-like instead.) I don’t really cotton to Olds these days. Those wicked family poems got a little tiresome after a while.
    But my real relationship with poetry, that is, my life as a poet, began when I suffered brain damage at 20, from a series of high, treacherous fevers. I woke up from the fevers with expressive aphasia, and had to learn how to talk all over again. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. When I returned to school after that and heard my first poetry workshop teacher, Gail Wronsky, reading “The Voice of Robert Desnos,” by Robert Desnos, I wanted to live in that voice – her voice reading his voice. I fell in love with all poems surreal and difficult (Desnos, Celan, Lorca, Cernuda, Hopkins, Blake, etc.), for that was how speaking as a person in this world felt to me – like a valiant battle waged in the fields of Understanding, Paradox and Truth.

  2. I remember in the tenth grade, a teacher of mine whose face I remember but whose name I cannot recall asked me to lead the discussion on Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” She gave me a couple day’s notice, and, along with some of the other kids in the class, she explained to me that we were doing this not so much as a grade, but as a favor, which may, in some respects sound irresponsible, but I think we all took it with this odd sense of duty, and I think it speaks highly of the amount of confidence she had in her teaching. What I mean by that is that it takes a lot of nerve to allow your students the oppurtunity to really explore on their own, undirected, and report back from this world that they find.
    And that, it seems to my memory, was the experience: Eliot was making a world for me, one that was vaguely familiar but spoke of complexities of pain and shame that I had not yet been troubled by. What I did know was the image and the music. I can recall pretty vividly sitting alone at our kitchen table at night, reading the poem again and again, loving it, but not knowing why exactly, just knowing that with these words in my mouth, with this voice under my throat, I spoke with a confidence and a knowledge that seemed to channel the unearthly.
    I did not grow up in a religious home, or a home sadly torn by violence or pain. I was lucky in this way, and also sheltered. I did not have a true context for a phrase like, For thine is the Kingdom, and though I had a vague sense that it was religious, particularly Christian, I doubt that I could have told you it was from the Lord’s Prayer. What I am geting at is that it was familiar as the piece of a whole, a piece of something larger, but, unable to conjure what that larger thing was, I only knew it carried the weight of Very Important Words.
    Another thing that I know worked on me was the repetition. When a quiet voice tells you, “The eyes are not here/ There are no eyes here” it sticks, not just because of the oddity of the claim, but because of the insistence. This voice wants to make sure that you know he’s searched and searched–there are no eyes.
    Finally, what I came to as a private realization, not something that I would go back to class and say, but a way of understanding for myself, a way of making sense of the incantatory power I was playing with there at the kitchen table with my reflection shining back at me in the night window, was that this was wizard-speak, it was a spell, it was a stern hand on my shoulder, the hand of Merlin or Gandalf, saying, “Look, boy. Don’t you see? This is the way the world ends.” But before he got there, before this grizzled old man in my mind (for who knew what T.S. Eliot actually looked like? Certainly not me), before he showed my a picture of Armegeddon, he conjured a ring of children who danced before me holding hands, in a way that ought to have been joyful but that was, and remains, utterly creepy–not grotesque, but haunting.

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