At some point I realized that the poems in the Norton Anthology by Frank O’Hara were my favorites. I also liked what I saw there of John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Ted Berrigan. James Schuyler and Barbara Guest would have to wait, but I was (and am) a firm devotee of the New York School. I had subscribed to the American Poetry Review by this time, and they did an O’Hara number with a chapter from Marjorie Perloff’s book. Around this time, too, Ashbery won the Pulitzer prize, along with a few other prizes, for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. This book became my poetry textbook for the years to come, and I found myself defending Ashbery when there was still considerable resistance to his work. With the arrogance of youth, I had contempt for people who didn’t see his obvious genius. A famous feminist critic, also a poet, told me in college that William Carlos Williams was a bad influence, and I heard poets like William Stafford and Robert Bly condescend to Frank O’Hara. To this day I am rankled when somebody condescends to a genius while tolerating all sorts of mediocrity.
In French class in high school we learned the rules of classic prosody. The way to count syllables and the alternation of masculine and feminine rhyme. Also, a method called “explication du texte” that has you answer a series of pre-formulated questions about any text. Although the method itself was uninspiring, it gave me a useful sense that the study of literature could be systematic. I remember trying to translate Blake’s poem “The Fly” into French and making the number of syllables come out right by counting the muted e of the words petite mouche. I could never get this translation to come out right. This seems like a formative moment, though: I remember many other phases of my life in which my obsessive interest in poetry centered mostly on the technical details of versification.
I am also prone to ear-worm as adolescent, although when I first experienced it I did not have a word for it. For weeks at a time, I was tortured by poetic phrases that I could not get out of my head. One was the beginning of Pound’s translation of “Seafarer”: “May I for my own self / song’s truth reckon / journey’s jargon / how I in hard times / hardship endured oft” The other I remember is the beginning of a poem by André Breton: “Jersey Guernsey in somber and illustrious weather.” I am not sure whether this ear-worm is the cause or the effect of my obsession with certain kinds of poetic effects. I still experience it today, with both music and poetry, but seldom with the intensity of these earlier experiences.
Poets would come to the university near where I lived to give readings, and I saw Stephen Spender and Richard Eberhardt, and then would become interested in their work. It seemed to make sense to me that the same poets who were in the anthology would also be the ones invited to read. When I entered the university myself at age 17, I took a poetry workshop from Karl Shapiro, who was unimpressed by my talent, and from Thom Gunn, who was more supportive. Gunn’s work was unexciting to me, though I admired him as a teacher and human being. I appointed myself to be an the editorial board of California Quarterly and also published two poems there as undergraduate. I read a lot as an undergraduate, reading more on my own than I did for my courses. Taking my reading list from Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, I read Henry Green and Flann O’Brien. I delved into the second generation of New York School poets, especially Ron Padgett and Ted Berrigan. The New York school poets became a kind of alternate reality for me, an imaginary world in which I too lived—imaginatively at least. I had never been to New York, and when I met Kenneth Koch after a reading in Davis, once, I was quite awkward when I told him why I admired his poetry.
My father would drop me off at Serendipity Books in Berkeley.