I don’t think I’ve read an interview with a writer where the interviewer did not ask some version of this question. In responding to John, I decided I wanted to talk about writers in whose work I could point to a specific lesson I had learned. I chose to limit myself to people I’d read in the 1980s because that’s when I made the commitment to myself that I would be a poet. This is the list I brainstormed for myself:
I think of these writers, broadly speaking, in terms of two different kinds of influence: those from whom I learned about craft, which I will write about here; and those from whom I learned about content, which I will write about next time.
Craft: Rhythm, Meter, Rhyme, The Line: John Donne, June Jordan, e. e. cummings, Robert Creeley, Albert Goldbarth
The starting point for me when I think about my own relationship to craft is the first exercise June Jordan gave in the first poetry workshop I ever took. We were, she said, to reproduce in a poem of our own the precise scansion and rhyme scheme of a nursery rhyme. We didn’t have to use the same rhymes, just the same rhyme scheme, and we were only allowed to use off-rhymes if the nursery rhyme did as well. We were also not to allow ourselves even a single extra syllable in a line. I don’t remember which nursery rhyme I chose, but I can still see the green cover of the notebook in which I struggled for a good two or three hours to craft the lines that would meet those requirements and the deep satisfaction I felt when I succeeded.
Later, when I read Professor Jordan’s poem “Getting Down to Get Over”—she was never just “June” to me—I began to understand what it mean for a poem to be composed, in the musical sense of that term. What I noticed first was the way she used nursery rhyme-like rhythms in different parts of the second section:
she works when she works
in the laundry in jail
in the school house in jail
in the office in jail
Then at the end of that strophe:
drinkin’ wine when it’s time
when the long week is done
but she works when she works
in the laundry in jail
she works when she works
The rhythmic structure of that entire poem is worth studying, and I studied it carefully. I scanned some sections, tried to imitate others, and that process transformed the way I looked at the work of two other poets who are in some ways so radically different from each other and from Jordan that connecting them as I am going to do here would seem counterintuitive at best: e. e. cummings and John Donne. (And yet there are also ways that cummings wouldn’t have written as he did if Donne had not written, but that’s for another post perhaps.)
Oddly, I did not at first think of cummings as a formal poet. I knew he wrote formal poems, but I was more taken with the content of his poetry, his playfulness and humor, the beauty of his love lyrics, his frank eroticism, his political satire. Then someone pointed out to me that some of the poems I liked the most, that I’d always thought of as free verse, were actually sonnets, and suddenly I was again counting syllables, scanning lines, tracing rhyme schemes. I began to see a relationship between cummings’ more obviously and traditionally formal poems, like “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” and sonnets that stretched the form almost beyond recognition, such as “i like my body when it is with your.” Intuitively, this insight threw me back onto the poetry of John Donne. I’d alway felt a strong emotional connection to Donne’s work, I think because I resonated with the tension between the spiritual explorations of his Holy Sonnets and the sexual desire expressed in poems like “The Flea” or “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” but, as with cummings, I’d never given much thought to the formal nature of Donne’s poetry and how my responses to the poems were inseparable from the effect Donne’s formal choices had on me. Once I started paying attention, though, I was even more solidly hooked, and I knew I’d be writing formal poetry for the rest of my writing life.
The other two poets in this group, Robert Creeley and Albert Goldbarth, are not formal poets in the sense that I’ve been talking about till now, but I learned from each of these very different poets important lessons about the line, how each one in a poem should be able to stand musically on its own and how, in the absence of received formal constraints, that musicality had to be located in the rhythm and “melody” of the syntax. Each of these poets showed me ways of moving a poem forward by playing syntax over and against line breaks that I still use today. I wish I owned the books in which I marked up the poems that taught me this, but, sadly, they are among those volumes that did not make it across one of the many moves I have made during my life. Maybe I’ll write about Creeley and Goldbarth as influences in more detail at some future date.
There is one more name I need to add here, Hayden Carruth, though it was his prose more than his poetry that had the most impact on me, in particular the essays in Effluences from the Sacred Caves. What I found most compelling, I think, was how was able to articulate in simple, straightforward language, why craft and attention to form mattered. In essays like “Three Notes on the Versewriting of Alexander Pope” and “Influences: The Formal Idea Of Jazz,” he showed me how to think systematically about my own relationship to form and craft; and, in reviews like “Robert Frost” and essays like “Here Today,” he showed me how to use a knowledge of form and craft to articulate my own experience of other poets’ work. In fact, I don’t think I could have written this post had I not read and reread Carruth’s essays way back when.