Five Poets Who Changed My Life

Dorothy Parker. My sixth grade English teacher, Anita Malta, gave us the poetry anthology Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…and Other Modern Verse, edited by Stephen Dunning, Edward Lueders, and Hugh Smith. This was the first time I remember being invited to read and write poems. But in fact, I don’t remember any of the poems we read from Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle, except for “Résumé” by Dorothy Parker. Why I remembered it, I think, is that it seemed so transgressive. Not that the word “transgressive” was in my vocabulary then; but the idea that someone could write a poem about something so—what? Well, maybe a poem about something so wrong. Wrong, that is, in the sense that, if I wrote a poem like that as an eleven-year-old boy in Ms. Malta’s sixth grade English class, two months after my father had died of colon cancer, there would probably have been guidance counselors consulted, maybe even parents—surviving parents, that is—called to school. Curiously, while I never forgot the poem’s subject, I did forget its form. It was only years later, when I rediscovered the poem, that I realized it was a remorseless little nursery rhyme, imbued with a bittersweet laughter. And just as curiously, in the intervening years, that forgotten laughter had somehow become my own way of being in the world.

T.S. Eliot. Still in sixth grade, still in Ms. Malta’s English class, only now we’re reading On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s grim 1957 novel about a group of characters in Melbourne, Australia, who are determined to live their lives instead of waiting to die while the fallout from a nuclear World War III makes it way to the southern hemisphere. Again, I didn’t remember a lot of the details, but I did remember the mother who has to give her baby one of the “suicide pills” provided by the government to allow the survivors to evade a slow and painful death. And I remembered quite vividly Shute’s epigraph to the novel, four lines of poetry: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” Of course, these are the final lines of Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” a poem that I would not read for many years after reading Shute’s novel. In fact, I did not read the poem until I was in college, where my study of Modern British Literature with Professor Jeffrey Perl at Columbia University convinced me that I needed to study Latin and Greek, so I could better understand the Modernists’ obsession with classical civilization.

Sappho. So Eliot and the English Modernists led me to the Greek lyric poets, including Sappho, who sang of love, a kind of desire that was also a god. There are other Greek lyric poets, including others who sing of love, even of same-sex desire. And yet none commands my imagination like Sappho, perhaps because she was the first to describe love as bittersweet, perhaps because she describes more movingly than any other Greek lyric poet the way love reduces the lover to a burning, sweating, blind, deaf and dumb absence of self that is also the most intense presence of self imaginable. When I first began to write again after a long self-censorship, I found myself addressing lost and unattainable beloveds in the intimate second person that I had learned from my academic study of Sappho and the other Greek lyric poets.

David Trinidad. I’m sorry, David, it must be terribly embarrassing for you to see your name on this list, especially right after Sappho. But in my long academic Odyssey through ancient poetry and high modernism, I neglected contemporary poetry, and I started writing poetry later in life without having contemporary models. So I started reading every issue of Best American Poetry, and among my most cherished discoveries was David Trinidad’s poem “Reruns” (which appeared in the 1997 edition), a sequence of seventeen haiku—one for each syllable in the haiku form—each capturing a moment from a 1960s television series, like The Patty Duke Show, The Addams Family, and I Dream of Jeannie. The effect “Reruns” had on me was not unlike the affect Dorothy Parker’s “Résumé” had had so many years earlier, a liberating effect, a granting of poetic license, a declaration of independence from my own narrow assumptions and expectations.

Allen Ginsberg. The poets that have changed my life are those who helped me undermine my stubborn sense of obedience to authority, my drama of the gifted child. Good little boys don’t contemplate suicide, or dissolve into a puddle of bittersweet same-sex desire, or dignify the lowly Beverly Hillbillies with the exalted and evanescent beauty of the haiku. I know I’m only allowed five poets in this post, but in this regard I need to quickly mention another discovery from my perusal of Best American Poetry, Molly Peacock’s “Have You Ever Faked an Orgasm” (which appeared in the 1995 edition). But the poet who looms in my imagination as the greatest “solvent of morality” (to quote Susan Sontag on camp) is Allen Ginsberg. I acknowledge and celebrate all the queer poets who documented same-sex desire, homophobia, AIDS, and other queer concerns in recent decades, but I don’t know if anyone can ever again write a line as consequential, on so many levels (social, cultural, political, aesthetic, and even legal) as Ginsberg’s “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy” in “Howl.”

In closing, I must dedicate this post to the poet who has changed my life in a different way, my husband Jason Schneiderman.