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It is hard to restrict myself to only five poets who changed my way of looking at the world, and at language and its possibilites. Given the venue, I’ll limit myself to LGBT poets, which at least helps in making the selection, by no means implying that only the work of LGBT poets has so affected me.
W.H. Auden, from whose work I learned much about the light measure of meter, about the intersection of lyric and narrative, of history and fable, of tragedy and wit. Auden’s internationalism, a British poet who came to live in the United States and then set up housekeeping in Austria, who had observed the Spanish Civil War first hand, as well as Germany between the wars – remains part of my own world-view and experience. Auden, as a poet and man of letters (I began to write « person » and thought how he’d have hated that) was my model of what a writer, a poet, might be, in his dizzy wealth of intellect – nor was he reluctant to be « dizzy » in the colloquial or camp sense — , in his implication in the contemporary world informed by enracination in the classical one, in the humor, including self-mockery, that protected (and projected) a certain vulnerability and a persistent inquiry.
Muriel Rukeyser’s project as a poet was as inclusive as her immediate modernist forbears were sometimes hermetic, and her communities of choice were numerous. From her first book, published in the Yale Younger Poets series when she was 21, she showed her desire to examine and widen her own implications in the contemporary world through poetry. For her, poetry could encompass both science and history, that of the past and of her own present, from the Depression through the anti-war movements in which she was active at the too-early end of her career. “Not Sappho, Sacco,” was how she described the source of her poetic energy in an early poem. Rukeyser’s oeuvre is vast and surprising, ranging from Whitmanian cadences to metrical elegance, from the lyric to the documentary. She was one of the first Anglophone poets to incorporate scientific language, court transcripts, historical documentation into poetic sequences. She recognized the poetic possibilities of jazz, film, radio; she insisted upon the poetic inevitability of implication in contemporary life and events (in her case, the Depression, trade unions, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, the Cold War and its concomitant censorship). Rukeyser’s 600-page Collected Poems was published in 1979, a year before her death: it went out of print soon afterwards. For more than a decade her work was unavailable, except in anthologies coming from the American feminist movement. Feminism was one of Rukeyser’s causes, but neither the sole nor the primary one. Without the rescue effort made by American feminist editors and anthologists, her work might have remained in the limbo of out of print books: a response to those who deplore “focused” anthologies as segregationist and reductive.
Adrienne Rich’s work as poet and critic may have changed forever the reception of women poets by critics at all points on the literary spectrum in the Anglophone world. Her poetry traces the development of an informed and engaged human consciousness, and, like so many other women / lesbian poets of my generation, the opening out of that consciousness in poetry became an exemplar for my own. Even while Rich was most insistent (and I, her reader, insistent with her) on her particularity as a woman, and an American woman, and on the historical over-determination of women’s experiences and supposed limitations, she was insisting as well that a woman’s intellectual / political/ aesthetic development could provide the emblematic narrative for a generation of inquiring minds of any gender.To read a woman poet using and subverting the modernists’ collage/quotation/fragmentation techniques — so often employed in mockery of women — in a project of specifically womanly and mordantly feminist inquiry was a heady pleasure. Rich has never been satisfied with the static, either in political conviction or in poetic technique : each new book claims, explores, excavates new territory.
Richard Howard is the only poet of whom I might say literally that he « changed my life» when, as poetry editor of the New American Review in the 1970s, he published a generous selection of the work of a then unknown poet, unknown to him as well, and an expat to boot – and then encouraged me to submit a book manuscript to editors. But I had dared to send work to Richard Howard then in part because of of my admiration for and delight in his own books – at that time, Findings and Untitled Subjects. Howard retains for poetry the elements of theatrical multivocalism, plot — indeed, « intrigue », and an intoxicating mixture of polymath information (aesthetic, linguistic, historical) and invention.
Aga Shâhid Ali: How could one poet combine and continue the possbilities opened by, the challenges posed by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, James Merrill and Mahmoud Darwish, be a writer of the South Asian (and Muslim) diaspora while becoming an essential American poet? Shâhid, in his too-short life, accomplished this. His work is at once ludic and tragic. It is steeped in North American life while bringing to its readers the landscape and history of Kashmir ; it is international and intercultural; part of the long, multilingual annals of the poetry of exile while entirely of its own time and place. Shâhid became a virtuoso of the received forms of European poetry—the sonnet, the canzone, Sapphic stanzas, terza rima—using them to embody narratives such poetry is not at all accustomed to « receive », while perfecting and popularizing among myraid poets the « real » ghazal, as practiced in Urdu and Farsi poems, with its intriguing blend of erotic, spiritual and political themes, in English.
Also Hart Crane, Constantine Cavafy, Jack Spicer, James Merrill, HD, Elizabeth Bishop, Audre Lorde, Thom Gunn, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Duncan, May Swenson…
And those poets whom I count / have counted as friends, with whom I have been enriched by ongoing dialogue: Suzanne Gardinier, Alfred Corn, Lewis Ellingham, Etel Adnan, Nicole Brossard, Kim Vaeth, Irena Klepfisz, Joan Larkin, Rafael Campo, Jenny Factor, Yerra Sugarman, Sina Queyras, the late June Jordan, the late U.A. (Ursula) Fanthorpe and the late Reginald Shepherd.
[Photo: Florence Trocmé]