When I mentioned to my mother that I had more than thirty term essays to read over a weekend, she replied, “Aren’t you lucky that you found a job where you get paid to read? You’ve always liked to read.”
I didn’t come from a family of readers; we were baseball-mad and shared a dream that someday I would play for the Cleveland Indians. But at six years old my skull was fractured in a playground accident. I was partially paralyzed and unable to attend school for a year. My grandmother, who had lived in St. Louis during the Depression and was a Browns fan, gave me a subscription to the Sporting News, published in that city andat that time known as the “Bible of Baseball.” With the assistance of my mother, I read every word on every page, including the back pages on basketball and horse racing. I also had an unlimited thirst for comic books, and devoured everything from Archie to Kid Colt Outlaw, though Classics Comics were my favorites because they were wordier. By the time I returned to public school the following year, I read well enough that the first-grade teacher suggested I skip second grade and head right to third. Though I began again to participate in sports and other outdoor activities, by then I had acquired the reading habit. I remember living with my grandparents after my father died and lying on their living room floor immersed in some book as my younger cousins crawled over and around me, pulling my hair and hammering on other parts of my body while I resisted paying attention and continued to focus on the printed page.
I developed a vocabulary more advanced than my peers, though I didn’t always know how to pronounce words that I had never heard spoken. We didn’t have a dictionary in our apartment, so looking up definitions often had to wait for the next visit to the public library. But I became adept at guessing a word’s meaning by its context, though in many cases my sense of that meaning may have been imprecise. Fortunately, enough of my teachers were impressed that I was experimenting with those words that they came to think of me as a writer. And you do learn how to write if you read widely enough. You become sensitive to rhythm, syntax, and diction. You develop a sense of grammatical propriety, even if you don’t know the rules that underlie your decisions.
That doesn’t mean that you come easily to poetry. I came to that art late, and it was simply an effusion of enthusiasm. Whether you develop an interest in politics, chess, automobiles, or fishing, eventually you’re going to want to try your hand. You’re going to work for a cause, play a game, learn to drive, find a lake or a stream.
In college I made two large, seemingly contradictory, poetic discoveries—T.S. Eliot and the New American Poetry anthology edited by Donald Allen. While most of my poet friends discovered through the latter how to escape the influence of the former, I was unsophisticated enough to try to absorb it all simultaneously. While I was reading Murder in the Cathedral and Eliot’s erudite jabs at tolerance and liberty, I was also reading those unreconstructed Romantics William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Koch, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, John Wieners, and LeRoi Jones. I tried to make sense of it all, to establish some order among the anarchy of my reading. But I accepted the contradictions in the same way that I accepted the idiosyncrasies of my family—the weepy amphetamine drunks of my truck-driving uncle and the teetotalling stoicism of my truck-driving stepfather—without making any judgments about which way of encountering experience was superior. I suppose that the very democracy of my reading bent me in certain directions, but I couldn’t have mapped them.
When I moved to New York City after college, it seemed that all my close friends were poets. Like other adventurous and searching young adults, we talked all day and into the night about ideas, possibilities, events and relationships, but we also marveled at particular poems—Apollinaire’s “Lundi rue Christine,” Stein’s Tender Buttons, Mayakovsky’s “Cloud in Pants,” Whalen’s On Bear’s Head, Schuyler’s Hymn to Life. We read each other’s poems, recited them in bars, bookstores and churches and, though many of them were, as my friend Ted Greenwald said, “baby poems,” we treated them with curiosity and respect.
During forty years of writing I like to think that my poems have become more urgent, elegant, and incisive. Perhaps those competing qualities continue the muddle of my enthusiastic reading. A friend points out that despite diverse inspirations my poems usually end as contemplations of the same three subjects—art, politics, and family. Those categories are sufficiently capacious to include a great part of the world, though I like to think that they are supplemented by insistent sensory encounters with human and nonhuman nature. But much of my poetry now seems to me inescapably literary, even Alexandrian in its allusion to other poems, other books. I sometimes wish that were not the case, but what can you expect from someone inspired to write by reading?