Barrett Watten read & talked last night, mostly from The Grand Piano but with a longish illustrative poem thrown into the mix as well. A nice event. In the Q&A moments afterwards, one of my undergrads asked the most basic of questions, but one that ended up dovetailing rather nicely with what Watten was circling around in his talk, the relationship of personal formation, as detailed & explored in autobiography, and literary interpellation: Who were the first poets you read?
Allen Ginsberg, Barrett replied, and went on to situate that "hailing" to poetry within the context of his own early (?) teens, living abroad in a military setting (Taiwan, a navy family). One can only imagine the exotic, colorful picture of a distant America Ginsberg presented to a young person an ocean away from the country his immediate, probably quite sealed-off, community so enthusiastically (indeed, dutifully) identified with.
(I sympathize, sharing with BW not merely a birthday, but a parallel experience of being born on a military base abroad & spending much of my youth in the strange bottle-universe of foreign US defense installations. For us, shopping was the PX or the commissary; to venture out into the Kassell or Frankfurt streets was to go "on the economy.")
And I thought, who hailed me, all those years ago? I have a photo somewhere of myself at maybe 2 or 3, wearing a pair of chubby khakis & one of those cable-knit tennis sweaters I always identify with the original miniseries version of Brideshead Revisited (Anthony Andrews, Jeremy Irons), standing with my hands in my pockets, a sly smile on my perfectly circular face, in front of one of my father's bookcases – in which one can read the spines of the Portable Milton and the Portable Blake. It was Blake who hailed me, that very Alfred Kazin-edited volume, which I seized & read over & over – at least the lyrics: the prophetic books were beyond me then, in my middle teens – & carried off to college my first year, & still have on my shelf today.
What I learned first from Blake, & later found repeated in the odd sequence of John Crowe Ransom, Pound, & then the whole rhizomatic rush of poets I discovered in my college years – Michael Palmer, Ronald Johnson, Leslie Scalapino, Jonathan Williams, Emily Dickinson, Robert Duncan, and LZ – was the home truth that for me, poetry was always as it were at an angle. The poems that stuck with me – all of Blake's, perhaps one of Ransom's, many, many of Pound's – never had the neat conceptual & metrical balance of the doggerel we read in high school classes: there was always an excess or a deficit, an overabundance of meaning or affect, or a corresponding hole, a mystery that no summation could encompass.
I cracked my head in college on Donne's crystalline metaphysical crossword puzzles, trundled thru the library for the sources of Duncan's Passages, and spent hundred of hours cross-referencing, annotating, or just reading aloud The Cantos. But I never expected to master any of those poems, to be able conceptually to wrap them up in brown paper & tie them off neatly with a bit of string: there was always, in any poetry that held my interest, some corner or vast stretch of unknowing that could never be mastered. Like the house in Danielewski's novel, the poem is always larger on the inside than on the outside.
And that's why, perhaps, when I deal with my own students' negotiations with poetry, I sympathize with the undergraduates who lament that they can't "sum up" what the poem's "about," but counsel them that what's important is what the poem does; & when my workshop students lament that their productions aren't as "coherent" as they'd like, I try to cough and grin and change the subject to the lines & passages that will always, precisely, fail to "cohere."