I first read “Song of Myself” in 1993. I was twenty-two, living on my own for the first time, in a city a thousand miles from the suburbs where I grew up. Just moved into my first apartment, I shattered one of the painted-shut front windows trying to pry it open and spent the next three days terrified someone would break in. And take what? I had only a single suitcase and sleeping bag in three otherwise bare rooms. But still, I was terrified—and it didn’t take long for me to stumble onto greater fears. I shortly learned that all the other men in my apartment house were HIV positive. I’d barely heard of the disease before moving to Houston, and it suddenly seemed that everyone, all the men I wanted to be with, were positive. My fear wasn’t rational; it was disconnected from any thinking about transmission or acts. But—and I am embarrassed to admit this—it gripped me for years.
That winter, I read “Song of Myself” for the first time. I read the poem as one must read it: the raw 1855 edition, in a single sitting, in a bare apartment crawling with roaches, and newly aware of my own mortality. What astonished me then—and astonishes me now—is how completely Whitman allayed my fears: fears of dying and of living. The poem gave me a deep (if temporary) sense of peace, as if an older brother laid a large, warm hand on my shoulder. Reading Whitman still gives me that sense of peace. Emerson talked about “the best merits . . . of fortifying and encouraging.” Yes; exactly.
For a short time, I experienced the hope that I might be a reincarnation of D.H. Lawrence. My love of Lawrence was inspired by the quality of his voice, that ability he learned from Whitman to make printed words feel like instant utterance, as if they were geysers pluming up from the page at just that moment our eyes crossed them. I love the discovery, the feeling of a poem being generated as it progresses. The other thing I love about Lawrence—and probably what inspired my reincarnation fantasy—is how much really awful poetry he wrote along with the indisputably great work. So many thin, often vitriolic poems—and then you knock your head against something like “Ship of Death” or “Medlars and Sorb-Apples” and you marvel that genius can sit side by side with such pettiness. Lawrence teaches me that you can be a great poet (or simply a decent one) and yet still write a whole lot of trash. This makes him human in a way that makes me love him—wins me over even when he’s at his most shrill—and helps me to forgive myself, too.
I’m not sure what ended my fantasy that I might really be Lawrence—probably just the humility that comes with aging. (It may also have been reading the novels, which did not excite me.) Still, the fantasy was nice while it lasted, and it allowed me to turn out “Banana Flower,” a tribute poem in Underwater Lengths.
Shakespeare appears in the middle of my list, but it’s probably more accurate to think about him as the center of it—so encompassing is his influence, and so early was it introduced. Like most Americans, I grew up reading Shakespeare. (What could be more American than learning to write by reading Shakespeare?) Shakespeare’s lines and rhythms are there when I want them to be and when I don’t. I have rewritten or given up on hundreds of poems that went astray when I stumbled onto a Shakespeare allusion, and was taken by that current to the wrong fork (the one that led the poem directly to the falls). But that said, who would give Shakespeare up? Once, what seems like hundreds of years ago (it was 1995), I laid against a beautiful man on a blanket, watching a Japanese theater company perform King Lear in Houston’s “Shakespeare in the Park.” The dialogue was in Japanese—the play set in feudal Japan—and I whispered the plot details in my lover’s ear, my lips that close for the full three-hour production.
What astonishes me most about Shakespeare’s plays is how well they are made: the subtle symmetries and correspondences, the nearly mathematical beauty of a fugue.
Sylvia Plath is the only poet on my list that I no longer read. I first experienced a Plath poem in an introduction to literature class at Rutgers College. I say I “experienced” the poem because I don’t recall reading it or even hearing it. I sat in a classroom in Milledoler Hall, and the professor—an old scarecrow of a man with a gravelly voice—started to read “Lady Lazarus” out loud. I don’t think I actually heard the words. The language entered directly into my brain as imagery, and the room fell away. I was nowhere, unaware of place or time. Image after image flashed before me, and the last one lingered like a bright object after you close your eyes: “out of the ash / I rise with my red hair. . . .” I won’t try to describe what I saw; out of context my vision seems silly, like a movie prop after a shoot. But the experience left me spent, and with a new, visceral understanding of what poetry could do—an alchemy that actually could produce gold.
Unlike the other poets on my list, Richard Howard influenced me not through his written work, but through his work as a teacher. I know a lot of young poets have had the experience of sitting with Richard Howard, watching him read through our poems with pen in hand, sometimes holding the page impossibly close to his face, as if he was studying the texture of the paper. What Richard gave me—or, gave us—is his critical voice. More than a dozen years later, I can hear Richard in my head. And I can invoke his particularly high standards, the marked (sometimes painful) tones of approval or disapproval. No other poetry teacher ever told me that something I wrote simply wasn’t good enough. I don’t always listen to Richard’s voice, but I feel very lucky to have it.