Believe it or not, I actually started out my writing life as a poet. And by started out, I mean I really didn’t write any fiction until maybe five or six years ago. I thought of myself as a poet. Which was funny, because in writing class after writing class I’d hear: “I think this poem is really a short story trying to get out.” So, finally, after hearing it enough, I started turning my poems into stories (often literally) and then started writing more stories and few poems. You can probably still tell from my writing style that I started out this way, if you really pay attention. It’s language first, always, and story/character/everything else second. Which is not necessarily good, but it’s the trap I always get stuck in because my first love was and is language. Which is why my first love in literature was poetry.
I fell in love with poetry when I was four years old, learning to read and reading poems with my mom and dad out of the still-in-print-I-think Poems to Read to the Very Young. Like all children, I loved the sing-songy nature of this particular poetry–and I still do have a great affinity for rhyming poetry, I have to admit. I continued to love poetry. I went to school back when we still had to memorize poems and recite them, and I still remember most of “The Highwayman” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “The Song of Hiawatha.” I learned John Donne and William Blake, still great favorites, in high school, and of course Dickinson (thinking then and now–how is it possible that this was written THEN and by a WOMAN and isn’t that amazing and wonderful and good?) and as an English major absorbed first the Victorians, the High Romantics, the Devotionals–Swinburne, Hopkins, Rossetti, Tennyson, Hardy. I fell hard for the Moderns, and I still read “The Waste Land” at least once a month. Yeats made me cry with the bigness of things, William Carlos Williams was another “you can do that?,” Wallace Stevens become my perfect poet and the embodiment of everything I love in literature, Robinson Jeffers and Hart Crane were like sad echos of the High Romantics, Frank O’Hara made me laugh and find a kindred soul in my embrace of the city. I loved Sylvia Plath and Marianne Moore, was not and am not big on the Confessional poets but still loved some of Lowell despite myself, found in Charles Wright a love of language taken even to the next level, and in Ashbery the same but coupled with a genius I admired but knew I could never possess. Howard Nemerov, Charles Simic, Elizabeth Bishop, W.S. Merwin…and this list only includes the English-speaking poets and not the French Romantics or some of my favorite Chinese poets, the great Polish poets, favorites like Paul Celan and Pablo Neruda, and so on and so on and so on. I love poetry and nothing else can calm me so well or make me feel so strongly that we have purpose, that things MEAN something.
But I know nothing, nothing, nothing, shockingly nothing, about contemporary indie poets. Nothing. I mean, I happen to have gotten my hands on a few books and know a few poets by sheer, mere chance–like Natalie Lyalin, for example, who is wonderful, or Molly Gaudry, whose prose poetry kills me, or Adam Robinson, whose poetry has expanded my notion of what that word means. But for the most part, I know nothing at all. And that’s a damn shame. How can I be so immersed in the fiction side of the indie lit scene, and know nothing at all about the other? Especially when nothing in the world gives me so much pleasure as reading a really great poem does? The taste in your mouth of a poem is like nothing else. The pen-to-paper of it is entirely happy-making. I think I need to know more, though, before I embarrass myself by even trying.
Anyone have any suggestions? Who are your favorite contemporary poets? What poetry collections do you love and recommend for surveying the indie poetry scene? I need your help!