Friday, March 06, 2009


L-R: Allen Ginsberg, Lew Welch & Robin Blaser 1963,
 probably the same day I met Dean Rusk & Adlai Stevenson
in my capacity as “lawn boy” to Rusk’s in-laws in
three weeks before the assassination of JFK
(photo courtesy

I’ve noticed of course that there are even fewer “classics,” i.e. books published before 1900, on my first list of the 20 books that caused me to fall in love with poetry than there are even of women. I wouldn’t agree with Georgie’s comment in my note stream that there was “NO ‘classic’ work” on my list save in that historic sense. You can’t tell me that Tender Buttons, The Cantos & Howl are not classics by any definition other than the “written before 1900” threshold. Actually, you can’t tell me that about a lot of the others as well – Spring & All not a classic? – but this morning I’ll just go with the three that I don’t think anyone can make a credible argument against.

Still, the implication of Georgie’s comment isn’t that off base. There may well be books penned before the turn of the 20th century that I do love deeply – The Prelude, Leaves of Grass, the works of Dickinson, the works of Chaucer & Shakespeare & Milton, even some of Blake & Keats – but generally these come later in my own evolution as a reader. So, no, they really don’t belong on that list.

Just as glaring an absence I would think is the complete absence of poetry in translation, or in another language. Part of this, of course, may well be that very little literature in translation genuinely qualifies on its own as great literature – The Rubiyat, The King James Bible, that just might be the entire roster.

But what these absences really are about, more than anything, is class. Through a few accidents of history – growing up in & around Berkeley being the biggest one – I got educated well above the usual standards of my class background & orientation. I grew up in a house that had no books other than The Book of Knowledge encyclopedia and a few Reader’s Digest condensed novels (save for my mother’s translation of The Decameron hidden in the bottom drawer of her dresser, her one “dirty” book, illustrated with daring line drawings or woodcuts of bare-bosomed maids). And while I had English classes in high school with some decent teachers, the focus of the curriculum was on grammar and practice – there were zero literature courses. About as adventurous as it got was when Audrey Rein (pronounced Ryan), my junior English teacher, brought some Woody Guthrie in as she taught a unit on poetry. But I’d already found him on my own through my interest in folk music.

If I think about who was the first foreign language poet who seriously mattered to me, it would have to be Francis Ponge, and particularly “Notebook of the Pine Woods” when it appeared in Origin. But by that point, I’d already found the subscription to Origin that was part – just a small part, really – of Robin Blaser’s legacy as poetry book buyer for the San Francisco State library earlier in the 1960s. It was not that I hadn’t read a lot of what was then available – Cavafy, Ritsos, Rilke, Lorca – but I hadn’t begun to put it together because it wasn’t clear, at least before that work by Ponge, penned when he was hiding out from the Nazis, trying to perfect a sonnet, how it related to my poetry & my life. You’ll note that I haven’t said word one yet about Rimbaud, Baudelaire or any of the French – that wouldn’t come for almost another decade, the Russians after that. It was Spicer that got me seriously into Lorca, but only once After Lorca had been reprinted after his death.

I don’t think my history is particularly unusual for anyone raised in a family where reading is restricted to the newspaper, or less. I have no idea whom I might have become had I grown up in Southeastern Washington where I was born, or in, say, Lodi where one of my grandfather’s brothers had become mayor. Growing up without books, music, art may well have been a handicap – I sometimes envy Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino & Kit Robinson the literate homes they grew up in, Hejinian & Scalapino just a few miles from my house – but Albany High took advantage of its proximity to Berkeley to hire some overqualified faculty & all I had to do was bicycle up to Telegraph Avenue. Or even over to Cody’s which was still on Grove where Fat Apples is today. A lot of the kids I went to school with were the children of UC staff – faculty never lived in Albany in those days, when the town was still actively run by the John Birch society & a cluster of rightwing merchants with businesses on Solano & San Pablo. But books were more than just a rumor – they were something that definitely helped rescue me from the limits of my circumstance. Those Birchers (and my grandparents) would no doubt have seen it as the proximity of books undermining my connections to the family, to which I can only say Thank Heavens!


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