Ten Poets Who Have Been Important to Me This DecadeDecember 18, 2009
With the end of the decade (depending on how you score the year) come the inevitable “best-of” lists, with every category of human endeavour ranked and debated. Normally, I’d steer clear of this sort of thing, but a few of the better, more thoughtful lists got me thinking about what I valued, and so I thought I’d try my hand at it. This started as a list of names, but somehow evolved to the ramble you have here.
I began writing poetry in about 1995 or ’96, and have (hopefully?) started to come of age in the art within the last few years. Over the last 10 years, many poets have influenced my work by either inspiring me and vindicating my ambitions or inspiring me and driving me into the arms of new experiments as a reaction to their work. Before 2000, I was heavily influenced by a different set of poets than those below, including bpNichol, Eliot, Auden, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Steve McCaffrey, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood, George Elliot Clarke, Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Sharon Olds, Pound, WCW, Ted Hughes, Eugenio Montale, Czesław Miłosz, Yehuda Amichai, Al Purdy, Don Domanski, Stanley Kunitz, Stephen Dunn, Frank O’Hara, Mary Oliver, Lorna Crozier, etc. etc.
Here’s a list of 10 poets* who have influenced me since 2000. It isn’t meant to be a comprehensive or pre/proscriptive list, but rather an anecdotal peek at what’s been rattling around in my head for the last bit. I’ve left off my friends and contemporary (at least in terms of my own generation) colleagues, because they influence me every day in the trenches in ways too chaotic to count at this point in my life. A few names offhand might include, Babstock, Bachinsky, Bök, Bolster, Boully, Callanan, Connolly, Crosbie, Fried, Heighton, Holmes, Jernigan, Lahey, Mouré, Nester, Pick, Queyras, Rohrer, Ross, Seiferle, Sol, Solie, Starnino, Vaughn, Vermeersch, Warner, Wershler, Wrenn, Zapruder, etc. (I know that as soon as I publish this, I’ll think of many other names that could equally fit in there, but this list is a good start)
I hope it turns a few people on to these poets above, as well as those below.
1. Richard Outram (Canada)
Richard Outram is hands down the greatest poet Canada has ever produced. His verse is difficult and playful and rewarding to both the determined re-reader and those who want to gloss with the ear. He ranges from sensual to bawdy, eros to agape, serious to downright funny. It’s helpful to read with an etymological dictionary by your side if you want to get all of the word play. He and his partner, artist Barbara Howard, ran the Gauntlet Press, which published much of Richard’s work in broadsheets and small book form on a small machine in their house. I got to know Richard when he rang me up out of nowhere in 2000 to congratulate me on a review of my first book in the Globe. This was the start of a friendship that lasted until his death, and I treasure the memories of our meetings and correspondences. Where can you start? I would start with either Hiram and Jenny or a hard to find selected Exile did in the 80s called Selected Poems 1960 – 1980. If my first mentor was Don Summerhayes, not included in this list because our student/teacher relationship was long over by the start of this decade, Richard was my last.
2. Geoffrey Hill (Britain)
Hill is perhaps the greatest living author working in the English language. Originally known for his mastery of form and vast, occasionally arcane, use of allusion and metaphor, Hill took what appeared to be a poetic left turn with his book Triumph of Love and began to work in a different, much more apparently chaotic form. Speech! Speech! and Orchards of Syon followed, confounding all but the most determined readers and critics. Another poet who requires a reference text, but in this case a full encyclopaedia. I’m pretty pleased to say that I have every single book he’s ever done in first edition hard cover (with the exception of Mercian Hymns, which is his greatest work, according to some, and which I only have in first ed. paperback because it’s currently worth nearly $1000 in boards). A costly collection hard won, but worth it. I’ve never met him, nor do I think I want to. I’ve heard he’s stern and unapproachable. Not that that would stop me, but he’s virtually a god in my eyes, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’d start with his ubiquitous Collected from the 90s that’s available from Penguin.
3. Paul Durcan (Ireland)
Over here many of us know Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, but those who look beyond this international face of Irish poetry will find the next guy in line is Paul Durcan. He’s the most accessible of the three, and perhaps the wiliest. His verse is alternately chatty, bawdy, deceptively simple, and absurd. Prolific and brilliant, he’s also the single best reader of poetry I’ve ever been fortunate enough to see live. I’ve been lucky enough to befriend Paul in recent years, but he’d been an influence on me for quite some time leading up to this. Start with Cries of an Irish Caveman or his brand new Collected called Life Is A Dream. Paul steals this spot away from Seamus Heaney, who could have as easily fit in here had this list been written five years ago.
4. Wisława Szymborska (Poland)
I discovered Szymborska in the 90s when I first started writing, probably when she won the Nobel, but she’s remained influential throughout the last decade as well. She was one of a series of women who influenced me greatly at the time, along with Anna Akhmatova, Gwendolyn MacEwan (below), Wendy Cope, and Sharon Olds. Her poems were the most literally note-perfect pieces I’d ever read in my life. At the time I was very much into Russian poetry as well as contemporary work from Poland. I aspired to just once create a piece as seemingly simple but sneakily complex as her work, but ended up at the time with mostly just “simple”. The nearest Canadian corollary to her that I know of is Don Coles. I would start with View With a Grain of Sand.
5. AF Moritz (Canada)
Like most people who now claim to be lifelong fans, I discovered Al Moritz late, in the 90s when I came across his magnificent book Rest on the Flight Into Egypt. He’s one of those poets, like Richard Outram (above) who somehow seemed to hover below the public’s radar while being beloved by other working poets. The difference is, he emerged from this state and has become one of the most widely recognized poets in the country. His dark, Hölderlin-inspired worldview drew me in and set me writing in new ways. He’s also become a friend since we first met. We were out at a bar one night shortly thereafter and he and I got into a lengthy discussion about science fiction. He emailed me later in the week and thus began our friendship. Since then, Al has not only written some undeniably brilliant poems and books, he also worked very closely with me on editing my third book The Hunter, for publication with M&S. A unique poet and very generous, gregarious man. I would start with his collection of Early Poems from Insomniac Press.
6. Simon Armitage (Britain)
I first read Armitage back in the 90s when I was writing my first poems. I was struck by the congruence of aesthetic and form. I was also lured by the fusion of contemporary vernacular with formal constraints. He seemed to me to be the natural successor to Ted Hughes, who I read voraciously in the 90s. When I went to Paris in 2003, I found quite a few books of his I didn’t have in a small shop there, and bought them all. I’m particularly enamoured of his “songs”, which have an obvious influence on an upcoming book of mine. I met Armitage in 2007 when I read with him and our mutual friend Ken Babstock in Montreal. Turns out he’s a nice guy as well as one of the great poets of his generation. There’s a lot of his work out there, but for poems, I’d start with Book of Matches or his famous Zoom!
7. Hayden Carruth (USA)
Carruth I acquired from my early association with Exile. The publisher there was a friend of his and I met him a few times at parties and such. I’d already read a bit of his work by the time I’d met him, but I later got so deeply involved with his work that I found myself a true fan. The long, hoary lines and oscillation between tight economy and exploring jazzy riffs, the seesaw between earthy, drunken wisdom and high allusion to heady texts. It was inspiring stuff. I suppose part of the reason I started to give him more attention was that I shared a long car ride with him, one which started out rather inauspiciously as my then publisher loaned me his expensive car to drive Carruth from Toronto back to his home in Syracuse, NY—I crashed the car about a mile from the Exile mansion and had to go back to get another car, then drive Carruth home, my nerves jittering all the way. He was very gracious about the whole thing, and even invited me in for whisky and talk of poetry. Start with Asphalt Georgics, the MacMillan selected from the 80s, or my favorite title for a poetry book of all time Tell Me Again How the White Heron Rises and Flies across the Nacreous River at Twilight toward the Distant Islands.
8. Gwendolyn MacEwan (Canada)
I was introduced to MacEwan during my undergrad, as part of a course on Canadian poetry. She immediately landed somewhere between angel and devil in my books, which is right where I suppose she’d want to be. I was deeply in love with her, though she was long dead by the time I’d discovered her. The mythological depths of her imagination seemed endless and I found myself, from line to line, alternately transported, consternated, bewildered, edified, and beaten. I wanted so badly to write like her, but never really attempted it consciously. It was almost too sacred a text to copy. I allowed her imagination and intellect in, but steered clear of sycophantic imitation. There is no wrong place to start with MacEwan because it feels as though it’s of one book. But you could try Armies of the Moon, the TE Lawrence Poems or the magnificent Breakfast for Barbarians.
9. John Ashbery (USA)
Ashbery is probably the American author who has had the most impact on my work in the last ten years. He is also the poetic granddaddy of all my poetry friends from my time living in New York, most of them related to him through their teachers and their teachers’ teachers in a direct lineage from the Abstract Expressionist school down through the MFA programs to those working today in contemporary poetry. He is alternately bizarre and surreal (not the same thing), poignant and hysterically funny. I saw him once on a street in the West Village. And another time reading at the KGB Bar where I hung out in New York’s East Village. I never really had the guts to say hi to him because the only thing I’d have been able to muster would be “I’ve read everything you’ve ever written…” before I would have trailed off into silence. Start with The Tennis Court Oath and read everything that comes after it.
10. 20th Century Russians
*I know this is a bit of a cop-out, but there is a huge range of 20th C Russian poetry I’ve read since 2000 when I branched out from Akhmatova (who was originally going to occupy this spot by herself) to her lovers and collaborators and beyond. A few names stand out among the Acmeist and Futurists, including, Aleksander Blok, Boris Pasternak, Nikolay Gumilyov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, etc. I have no idea how I wound up immersing myself in poetry I can’t read in its native language, but there was something to the politics behind it—the heavy, layered symbolism, double-talk, and obfuscation of intent. I also liked reading the poems translated primarily by Western counterparts who were helping to smuggle the work out during the Stalin years. It really is a beautiful, defiant window on an ugly, oppressive time. But it’s also a testament to how art will not only survive times that despise it, but will be compressed from coal to diamonds by the pressure. I wouldn’t be able to send you to a specific book, though I suppose any anthology of Russian poetry will cover these. Make sure to look for American translators, who often worked closely with the poets themselves or their scions. You might also try looking up the Futurist manifesto, A Slap in the Face for Public Taste.
Anyway, I hope this sparks some interest in you and brings you at least some new joy for the new year. It was hard to narrow down this list, but looking back, I’d say it’s at least fair and honest, if not comprehensive. I’d be interested to see your lists as well.