[So I wrote this today, working on my anti-textbook, which will be my project for 2017; I decided it should end with this memoir.]
In sixth grade, we were to write a poem as an assignment. At the moment, I decided to be a poet myself, and that has been my ambition ever since, although in my job is to be a Spanish professor. My earlier passion had been Greek mythology—and before that history. I had vague inklings about what poetry was supposed to be. I had found works by Poe in my Grandmother’s house, and been struck by the coincidence that a poet should have a name contained in the word poet, and that he had written poems about women who shared the names of my most literary aunts, Helen and Lenore. I had also read and enjoyed poems by Milne, from Now We are Six and When We Were Very Young, as I was learning to read, and had some idea of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, which my parents had read aloud to us.
My first idea of being a poet was that someone would hire a poet to write poems in order to express messages more eloquently than they could. Naively, I thought that I should know everything about poetry, so I studied assiduously Babette Deutch’s Poetry Handbook, and a little later X.J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry, which I didn’t realize was a college textbook. Although I considered myself to be a poet, I took this profession so seriously that I eventually became something else as well: a reader of poetry. I did write poems during my adolescence, continuing throughout college, and resuming intermittently at various points of my adult life, but my real talent, if you can call it that, is to be reader. It was only later that I realized that a many poets and literary critics are not particularly capacious readers of poetry. Since I began to study poetry seriously when I was 11, I had a natural advantage over those who only begin in college or graduate school. It was not only that I gained time in so doing, but also that I had the advantage of naivete: I believed that anyone who wanted to be a poet should undertake a serious study of poetry itself. What I didn’t realize was that most people’s approach is much more haphazard, and that the kind of systematic approach I was undertaking was a rarity.
It is probably true that this approach led me to have less confidence in my own talent as a poet, and to write less poetry than I otherwise would have. I am not recommending my method to any other preteens who might be reading this book. The seriousness of my study also meant that I become obsessed, taking on the study of poetry as a full time job and often neglecting my studies of other subjects. Other risks were arrogance and social isolation. I was shocked in my first college poetry class to hear a fellow student ask when Yeats lived. Later, teaching a sestina by Jaime Gil de Biedma as a young professor, I was equally shocked to find that graduate students were unfamiliar with the form.
My father gave me books like the Kennedy Introduction and the 1973 edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. After working through the Kennedy book at least a dozen times, I studied the Norton endlessly when I was 14, 15, and 16, essentially reading it from cover to cover over and over again. From there, I discovered my first poetic hero: Cummings, buying many of his books for about a dollar each and eventually splurging for the Complete Poems…