40 Years of Book Love: The 1980s in Poetry

My impending 40th birthday has occasioned this look backward through the decades at the books that shaped my identity. The first post in this series can be found here. (Update to that post: Adam read it and bought Gockel, Hinkel and Gackeliah for me for only $36.95 on Alibris. What a guy!)

My book consumption ramped up in my middle-school and teenage years, so I’m going to cover poetry and prose in two separate posts. I was a lonely, precocious young person with a smaller budget and more time to reread books than I have now, so my relationship to those favorite volumes had an intensity that gave this budding writer a good training in close reading. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my main influences: Anne Sexton, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden. Below are a few of the lesser-known collections that found their way into my soul, with excerpts.

There are no acceptable photos of me from this period.

Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale, edited by Marya Zaturenska
Teasdale (1886-1933) was an American lyric poet, a contemporary of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I stumbled upon her final chapbook, Strange Victory, in the Stockbridge, MA library when I was about 10 years old, on summer vacation, and was thrilled and stirred by her tragic yet unsentimental voice. She used rhyme and meter in a well-patterned but not rigid way. The darkness in her poems is pregnant with a spiritual presence that will endure while our little lives come and go. It’s a consolation for those sober-minded enough to face it. Perhaps that was the terrifying yet desired presence I sensed just beyond the looming nighttime trees and star-clustered sky of Western Massachusetts, where God seemed a lot closer than in the city. This poem says it all for me.

Return to a Country House

Nothing but darkness enters in this room,
Nothing but darkness and the winter night,
Yet on this bed once years ago a light
Silvered the sheets with an unearthly bloom;
It was the planet Venus in the west
Casting a square of brightness on this bed,
And in that light your dark and lovely head
Lay for a while and seemed to be at rest.
But that the light is gone, and that no more
Even if it were here, would you be here,–
That is one line in a long tragic play
That has been acted many times before,
And acted best when not a single tear
Falls,– when the mind and not the heart holds sway.

Rupert Brooke: The Poetical Works, edited by Geoffrey Keynes
Romantic poet who died young in World War I. Plus he was smokin’ hot. What more could a teen girl want? Though the first half of this poem seems a little cliche to me now, the second half still raises goosebumps. That’s the kind of love I always wanted, and have found: a comrade in arms who marches with me, jauntily, into the great unknown that waits for us all. (Adam might not appreciate the implication that he has “scarlet lips”, though.)

The Wayfarers

Is it the hour? We leave this resting-place
Made fair by one another for a while.
Now, for a god-speed, one last mad embrace;
The long road then, unlit by your faint smile.
Ah! the long road! and you so far away!
Oh, I’ll remember! but…each crawling day
Will pale a little your scarlet lips, each mile
Dull the dear pain of your remembered face.

…Do you think there’s a far border town, somewhere,
The desert’s edge, last of the lands we know,
Some gaunt eventual limit of our light,
In which I’ll find you waiting; and we’ll go
Together, hand in hand again, out there,
  Into the waste we know not, into the night?
Contemporary Poetry: A Retrospective from the Quarterly Review of Literature, edited by Theodore and Renee Weiss (1974)
Lest you think my tastes ran entirely to Edwardian schmaltz, this anthology was also a close companion of my high school days. It may have been a gift from St. Ann’s School classmate Alissa Quart, or one of the precious freebies I picked up as an intern at the Poetry Society of America, where my tasks included returning improper submissions in SASEs and shelving their burgeoning and disorganized collection of review copies. This book gave me glimpses into modern subcultures and ways of speaking that were new to me, all the more fascinating because I lacked the context to understand them fully. So much of the content looks unfamiliar to me now, that I suspect I focused on a few favorites and reread those while skimming the rest. Some of those old friends were:

Yehuda Amichai, “As for the World”
Edith Sitwell, “Dirge for the New Sunrise”
Richard Wilbur, “The Good Servant”
Charles Tomlinson, “Mad Song” and “Obsession”
W.S. Merwin, “Song With the Eyes Closed”
Raphael Rudnik, “A Letter for Emily”
Howard Nemerov, “Brainstorm”
W.D. Snodgrass, “Inquest”
Richard Hugo, “Keen to Leaky Flowers” and “Bluejays Adjusted”
M.L. Rosenthal, “Liston Cows Patterson and Knocks Him Silly”
Harvey Shapiro, “National Cold Storage Company”
Herbert Morris, “The Neighbor’s Son”
Michael Hamburger, “Friends”
Frederick Feirstein, “The Anti-Life: A Fantasy”
Phyllis Thompson, “The Last Thing”

You can buy this book for one cent on Amazon. And you should.

Darker, by Mark Strand
My 9th-grade English teacher introduced me to Strand’s koan-like poem “Reasons for Moving”, after which I snapped up this early collection at the sadly now-defunct Gotham Book Mart. (First published in 1968, the 1985 reissue by Atheneum, which I own, appears to be out of print, so I’ve linked to a Strand compendium that includes it.) This book seemed innovative to me because the weird, horror-movie images were not mere poetic similes, but were actually happening in the narrative of the poems. A more predictable writer might say his neighbor’s face is menacing like a hawk’s, but Strand says this, in the apocalyptic final poem, “The Way It Is”:

…My neighbor marches in his room,
wearing the sleek
mask of a hawk with a large beak.
He stands by the window. A violet plume

rises from his helmet’s dome.
The moon’s light
spills over him like milk and the wind rinses
  the white
glass bowls of his eyes.

His helmet in a shopping bag,
he sits in the park, waving a small American flag…

The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, by Richard Hugo
I’ve always been sensitive to the vibe of a place, and Hugo was a master at putting those intuitions into words. His free verse has a stately, compact quality that feels like formal poetry, an echo of iambic pentameter holding up the poem like the indestructible old girders of the abandoned factories he elegized in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”.

Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987, by Diane Wakoski
I won the high school poetry award from the Poetry Society of America the same year (1988) that this collection won their William Carlos Williams Award, and we both read at the award ceremony at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park. What a head rush! Wakoski’s talky, vulnerable, raw, female voice was a good balance for the high-modernist male poets that mainly influenced me during this period. At the ceremony, she read the powerful poem “Joyce Carol Oates Plays the Saturn Piano”. I remember feeling awed and discomfited that a writer so much more famous and old than myself would still be haunted by self-comparison to other writers, and by the feeling that she had let time slip away from her — ironically, because her younger self cared more about external validation than about devoting herself to art. “I promised myself/that if, by 40, I had won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry/I would let myself play the piano again,” she begins, going on to say that when she reached that milestone with no Pulitzer in sight, her hands had forever lost the flexibility to play as she had done at 20. Upon hearing that Oates has taken up piano, the speaker feels:

No. Past that.
A sense of failure?
Perhaps. For I gave up something
I loved/ to attain something
unknown, and now I have neither.

Wakoski was 45 when she wrote that poem. That seemed a lot older to me in 1988!

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