When I graduated from college, I did what I imagine every would-be writer does: I sat down and tried to read everything I'd ever heard of. I read all of Homer; Shakespeare; Sophocles and Aeschylus; Dante and Virgil; and of course Paradise Lost, which for one long week almost made a Christian of me; as much Blake as I could struggle through; some Chaucer; Whitman, who'd been the first poet I'd ever read voluntarily; Yeats, the poet I'd gone at most passionately while I was in school; Eliot, who was the poet then, especially in the academy, especially The Waste Land, or its footnotes; a lot of Stevens, some William Carlos Williams, although I didn't quite understand him yet (mostly I read Paterson); some Auden, Keats, Coleridge; not much Wordsworth, whose clarities deceived me; not enough Shelley, who seemed so longwinded; Donne, Herbert, even Traherne; Wyatt and Sidney; Marlowe; Webster; no Spenser, who was a perfect soporific; not much eighteenth century, which was the moon. There were many others—Crabbe and Meredith for starters—and probably many I've forgotten. I was also going at the novelists: almost all of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy; Melville; Hawthorne; Conrad; most of Laurence Sterne; a lot of Faulkner; Hemingway; Joyce, except Finnegan; a little Dickens, who was so entertaining I found him suspect; less James—too stuffy; not many contemporaries; Bellow and Gaddis; and a little later and more thoroughly and gleefully, Henry Miller. I struggled through what I could of the philosophers and social thinkers. Of the philosophers, the Greeks mostly, mostly Plato; of the others, a lot of Frazer and Jung, who were still having their vogue then. I once outlined, out of lord knows what forgotten good intention, the entire Tibetan Book of the Dead, and copied out in its entirety the Mystic Gloom of the Pseudo-Dionysus. It was all more or less nonstop: I'd fall asleep every night over a book, dreaming in other people's voices. In the morning I'd wake up and try, mostly fruitlessly, to write acceptable poems.
In memory, those years seem so distended, so grotesquely swollen with frustration, uncertainty, and loneliness. It wasn't until I actually stopped to count that I realized there were only four or five years, and not the greater part of my adult life, of what could most benignly be called my apprenticeship. Just learning to be alone was such a Heraklean task. The world always offered so many enticements. And at my desk, how my mind would drift, how I'd tear at myself with doubts, with self-accusations: I was surely indolent, probably spiritually inept, trivial, inconsequential, not cut out at all for this—no gift, no discipline. That fractured image of myself became myself: I was just as unhappy as you were supposed to be, as all the stories had you be, which may have been all that kept me going, because I was so lost by then; I had no idea anymore of what I was doing, I had no notion of what a poem even was.
I knew that I was deeply committed to poetry, but I wasn't quite sure why and was very uneasy about it. I hardly read any contemporary poets at first. I didn't know any other poets, had no idea of how to find any, and the poems I did come across I usually dismissed as either incomprehensible or trivial. It's remarkable how young artists always seem to make and feel perfectly comfortable with such outrageous exaggerations. Right along with a wracking lack of confidence, you can proclaim to yourself that there's nothing around of any real value, nothing in sight, and nobody but you who has any notion of what's really going on or needed. All you're really trying to do is clear the slate enough to get your own scrawl on it, but all this struggling can be very aggressive, maybe because you often have then so much the sense of being put upon, oppressed, by just about everything. Because I was so alone in it, I think I may have been even more impressionable than the young poets I've met since. I was always coming to odd conclusions. Once I decided that the whole tradition of English poetry was useless to me, and for a few years I didn't read anything but translations. That was before the great age of translating that began in the middle sixties, and I must have inflicted an awful lot of wretched translationese on myself. I did, though, find Rilke and Baudelaire, who were terribly important to me, and Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Char; Montale and Seferis, the haiku poets; and Rexroth’s Chinese and Japanese, mostly Tu Fu and Li Po. Really, what I read seemed to have been determined mostly just by what had been done, what I could get my hands on.
Ransacking other traditions that way, though, still didn't help me much in my own work. I was still frustrated, still mostly at loose ends and without direction. Then somewhere around that time I came to another odd conclusion, and made what seems to me now, considering how confused I was about most things, a surprisingly concrete and purposeful decision. It mostly had to do with all the work in longer forms I was reading, with how comfortable I felt with Homer or Dostoyevsky, and how ill at ease with contemporary poetry. I began to feel that a great deal of human interaction, a large portion of real moral sensibility and concern, had somehow been usurped from the poets by the novel and drama, and that in the face of it there had even been a further kind of protective withdrawal and a tunneling of vision on the poets' part. It felt to me as though anything that was on a large emotional scale, anything truly passionate, absorbing, or crucial, had been forsaken by poetry. What the poets of our time seemed to be left with were subtleties, hair-splittings, minute recordings of a delicate atmosphere. Even in the poetry I could find to admire for one technical reason or another, there seemed to be a meagerness of theme and attempt compared to the works in longer forms. I think my ideal as a poet then was Homer; I was fascinated by the sheer weight of the data, in the Iliad particularly, the utter factness of its human experiences, its absolute commitment to the given.
Oddly enough, the conclusion I drew from these reflections didn't send me to write novels or plays myself, certainly not epics. I was still, although I might have had a hard time saying why, absorbed in the lyric. I had, though, been writing some stories; I'd composed a play in college and assumed I would again, and had done some criticism—book reviews and reviews of art shows—for a local paper. Now I decided I wouldn't do any of that anymore. I resolved—the word applies; there was that much unexpected will to it—that anytime I had an idea for a story (I had notebooks of them) or for a dramatic sketch, or for anything resembling more purely intellectual activity—criticism, any sort of philosophizing—I'd try to find a way to get its matter into a poem.
It's hard to remember how long exactly it took me to come to what seemed like such an extreme notion; it's harder to remember what it felt like at the time. Surely all young poets flounder through similar crises and make as unlikely fusses; fortunately, we don't have to know that everyone else is doing it too. However little my decision may have actually affected the evolution of my work (that kind of thing would be hard to know really), it was certainly very important, primarily because beyond the vague sense it gave me of having a purpose now, a sort of goal, I was paradoxically able for the first time to begin to study other people's poems in a genuinely useful way: I needed them now, I wanted to see how aspects of my project might be being handled.
This all happened sometime between 1960 and 1965, and it's impressive to consider the books that appeared during those years that were important in any regard, and were astonishingly what I had been looking for. (That they incidentally made a joke out of my idea of the limitations of poetry went by me with hardly a flicker.) William Carlos Williams's Pictures from Brueghel came out in 1962 and was the key for me to the rest of his inspiring achievement. Then there were Lowell’s Life Studies, Roethke’s Far Field, Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, Plath’s Ariel, Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Merwin’s Moving Target, James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break, Kinnell’s Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock, Bly’s Silence in the Snowy Fields and the remarkable series of translations that he did himself or edited: Vallejo, Neruda, Hernández, Jiménez, Lorca, Trakl. They were all books that became crucial to me as soon as I stumbled across them, or as soon as one of the poets I'd begun by now to meet would direct me to them.
Now that I did know some other poets, it probably goes without saying that my project, my resolve, became even more of a secret than it had been before. I wasn't about to call that much attention to myself. Although I'd begun to write some poems that I wasn't completely ashamed of, I was still terribly shy and excruciatingly diffident about my situation as a poet. I still felt sheepish, for one thing, even guilty, about how I'd arrived at poetry. I'd never had that blazing calling our teachers had always indicated was the primary credential for it. Poets, we were given to understand, know who they are in the cradle; the rest is just a dechrysalization.
Poetry didn't find me, in the cradle or anywhere near it; I found it. I realized at some point—very late, it's always seemed—that I needed it, that it served a function for me or someday would, however unclear that function may have been first. I seemed to have started writing poetry before I'd read any. Although why this should have seemed to have been so much of a sin eludes me now, it reinforced the uneasy feeling that I'd had to create the interest in myself rather than having it dawn on me in some splendid conflagration. I'd always read a lot, but I wasn't particularly compelled by words for their own sake, or by "literature," which had always repelled me with its auras of mustiness and reverence. I detested almost any book I had to read, hated English in school, and I must have been surprised, maybe even a little put off, to find myself, just as the dreary poetry survey courses ended, turning the stuff out myself. I started writing one day for no real reason (I had a girl who liked poetry, or liked the idea of me writing it anyway: not much of a clue), but once I did, I knew, I can't remember exactly how, that the realities poetry offered me differed in essential and splendid ways from those of every day. My every days were all either tormented with confusions of one sort or another, or were intolerably humdrum. There was something about the way poetry isolated experience, its powers of demarcation, that promised a way to endow experience with forms that if nothing would be at least more dramatically satisfying.
My first model as a poet wasn't even a poet, but an architect, Louis Kahn. I met Kahn just as he was becoming famous. My closest friend was a student of his, and he brought me to Kahn's office, a marvelously strewn muddle of rooms over a luncheonette. I liked Kahn and spent a few years in his circle. I think he enjoyed having a young poet in his entourage; he may also have liked having someone around who occasionally disagreed with him—his disciples never did—but I can't say that I studied with Kahn so much as that I studied him. I was fascinated to begin with by his notoriety: architects and critics were making pilgrimages to Philadelphia to see his buildings and to meet him. More to my real advantage, though, he thought aloud. He was a compulsive theorizer and lecturer, and it was an unusual opportunity to see how a mature artist approached his work. I'd had some inspiring teachers at Penn—Schuyler Cammann, the Orientalist; Maurice Johnson, my wry, wise adviser; and Morse Peckham, who to my great good fortune was developing then his system of close reading—but it was Kahn who without my quite remarking it formed most of my attitudes about art and the artist's task. He worked constantly, day and night. I was awed by that. Even more than his industry, though, it was what informed it that impressed me: the astonishing patience with which he confronted his work, the numbers of attempts he demanded of himself before he found a solution he would trust. He demanded a complexity in defining a problem, so that its necessities would always be as demanding as possible; the solution then was a purification, a refining to essentials, and his work always achieved a simplicity that belied what had gone into it.
It occurs to me that I've never really considered why, given all my admiration for Kahn, I didn't simply try to become an architect myself. It may have had to do with the fact that there were architects in my life at all. In some ways, for whatever obscure reasons of rebellion or reaction, I seem to have been looking for a sort of negative identity. I'd never, as I've said, met a poet, had no idea what one would be like, and I didn't particularly care. Not only was there no glamorous or heroic imagery to being one, there wasn't any imagery at all, and there must have been something about that lack of detail I found compelling. I'm still not sure why, but it feels as though I wanted to be something that wasn't. I wanted a way of being in the world without having to admit it. I was after marginality: I wanted to be at the edges of things, not quite really visible.
Such oblique needs. For a long time I fretted about it. Machado says somewhere that in order to write a poem you have to invent a poet to write it. You also, I think, have to invent a whole literature to receive it, and a whole community of poets who will have produced that literature. They'll all have biographies you've worked out for them, and I found after a while that my own biography had become as fluid as any of theirs. One's retrospective sensitivities and dramas can be absorbing—young poet being battered to splendid consciousness—but sooner or later reality recurs.
I think I had a normal enough childhood. Aside from the Depression miseries of never enough money, money battles at dinner, late at night when they thought you were asleep, it was mostly all right. My mother may have worried about us a bit more than most—her father and a sister had been killed in accidents—but she had, and still has, too much sheer joy in life to have let her cautiousness affect her much.
What I remember most from my childhood is how restless I always was, how hard it was to sit still. I always seemed to be trying to get away, out, from home, from school, from anywhere. I imagine I was just sharing in the general atmosphere of that war and postwar time. Things were moving fast then: it was the boom, the "rebirth of America." Coming out of the sad gray years of the war, there must have been so much promise in the air, so much hope.
It's odd. I realize I never heard during those years the word hope used in the sense I mean to give it here, not in our household anyway. Maybe because our hope, our ambition, our passion to advance, to move up, was so pervasive, so all-involving, that it never had to be mentioned, perhaps more urgently couldn't be mentioned, because expressing it might imply its opposites, doubt-in-hope and, unthinkable, loss of hope.
I didn't know at that age, naturally, how great a part of the population was rushing through those expansionist years with the same ambition, toward the same promise, and what an outlandish number of them were making it. Our fathers toiled their unbelievably long hours, drove themselves, worked like madmen. Our mothers abetted them, laboring themselves when they had to, at the store, on the kitchen table with the books. There was even something demanded of the children, something that, even if we didn't quite understand it, we knew was our duty. We were to have an awareness of it all, of our complicity in it. We were to be flexed, somehow, before it. Concentration, that's what it was. We were meant to concentrate. It was my father's favorite word in the little pep talks he'd offer me. Concentrate! Sometimes I felt terribly inadequate because I had no idea of how to go about it. That didn't matter, though. My father's lectures were very dear to me. What I took from them had to do more than anything else with his attentiveness, with how important he considered my outcomes to be. The seriousness with which he regarded how I was to project myself into my life probably was central to that general sense of tension and responsibility that came so early, but if at times it was inconvenient, I was mostly honored by it.
There were some kids, though, who amazingly didn't have it. We weren't all on the same flight after all, apparently. My friend Tommy's father was a fireman; Tommy was going to be one too. How relaxed he looks. I can see him strolling home from school, ambling, dawdling along. I never ambled: I ran, trotted, paced, counted steps, got there fast, faster, first, even when I was by myself.
Tommy was different in other ways too, it not-so-gradually dawned on me. His mother, for one thing, never let me in their house. A gang of us would be playing in back, the other kids would trail in for lemonade or whatever, and I'd somehow be deftly amputated from the group to wander off by myself. Richard's mother did the same thing, and Michael, one of my best school buddies, got me down one day and slapped my face until I'd admit that I'd killed God.
Small stories. It doesn't at this late date bear constructing any edifices on the relatively offhanded ethnic indignities of a Newark boyhood. Still, this business of being Jewish was complicated. The prejudice, overt or otherwise, was easy enough to incorporate into a part of one's personality where it wouldn't obtrude onto active reflection. ("Spit in my face, you Jewes," says Donne, me hardly blinking.) What I did notice with something that must have approached intellectual interest was that I seemed to have several histories. Everyone else did too, of course—Tommy was Irish, Michael Italian; they were both pugnacious enough about it—but they participated in a way I never quite did in the official history, the one we were taught at school, all those dates and names leading triumphantly to Christian capitalist America. I don't know when I'd have noticed that that history and the one I was getting at shul had essentially nothing to do with each other. Very early, I know I'd squirm when we'd be exhorted by the principal—you still were then—to be "good Christians," but I already knew the advantages of expressionlessness, mild interest, mild boredom. There was such a discrepancy, though, between the two histories that I find it striking I never had any inclination to put them together, to collate them. They were perfectly distinct, and I left them that way: having two histories was as unremarkable as having two parents. I may even, on the imaginative level, have enjoyed it. Their narratives ran in opposite directions: the American one started in the present and reeled out backward, ending with the cavemen, whom I liked a lot, and the other one started at the beginning, which was a garden this time, and came this way.
That there were several gods, too, was beyond doubt. Michael, finally, after how many years of coyness, let me see his catechism. (It was exactly the same handy pocket size as the even more intriguing pornography he'd produce for me a few years later. Speak of influence! Whenever did language offer so much sheer glowing revelation as it did in that grubby, hand-typed samizdat of erotica that resolved so many burning questions of anatomy and mechanics?) The catechism, anyway, said, in cold print—yes, there it was—that the Jews had killed Christ, God, that God, a God I had to admit I found, despite the contentiousness of his adherents, not all that unsympathetic. Later, when I came back to it all, through Buber and Kierkegaard, and had my theodicy arguments with the God I created out of I and Thou and my Sickness Unto Death, probably much of the energy for it arose from the possibility of there being a kind of Manichaean double to go along with that self-absorbed Lord of rapture and good intention. It may also have had to do with why in the poems I wrote for that theodicy, I mustered all the insistent Baalshem childishness I could to inform my queries and consternations. God as the path of accusation is famously self-limiting: that I kept it up as long as I did certainly had to do, too, with Michael's little book—the first one, that is.
To try to speak at all about the history of the poetry one has written feels redundant, because the work is so much the history of itself and seems to have implicit in it everything pressing I've thought about poetry over the years. What I remember most about those first days, when I was trying to give myself completely to poetry, is that while I wrote all the time, obsessively, painful, somehow I didn't really know what to write about.
I tried everything. In 1960, I took a job as the census-taker for the neighborhood where I lived. I think I was curious to see the inside of the buildings I passed every day, but without quite realizing, I may also have been looking for material. For a while my reviewing of books and art exhibits at least gave me the semblance of the conviction that I could write something. Mostly, though, I just struggled, trying every imaginable kind of poem. Once I drove myself to compose an ode, rhymed, metered, unbearably mawkish and awkward, based on a sculpture group by Jacob Epstein at the Philadelphia Museum. (I didn't even have the good sense to have used Rodin's much better Burghers of Calais, which was there, too.) Then I wrote a sequence of about fifty sonnets about a visit to a prostitute, each with a different rhyme scheme, using half-rhymes and pararhymes (I'd been studying Wilfred Owen) and junked the whole thing.
It was simply one hopelessly bad poem after another. I knew the poems were bad, and although I did manage to write one that pleased me and that I published, a memory of childhood called "Sleeping Over," I was mostly lost, and terribly frustrated. I felt clearly—I'm not sure how I arrived at the notion—that I wanted my poetry to have an urgency about it, an ethical gravity: I wanted it to be about what was most important to me when I was most serious with myself, but I had no idea how to accomplish any of that.
When what I was looking for finally arrived, it came in a way I'd have never suspected. I'd been struggling on and off for four or five years on a poem about the Holocaust. I've written elsewhere (in the poems "Combat" and "Old Man") about the way the Holocaust was concealed from my generation of Jewish children: our parents never mentioned it in our hearing; they must have felt it was either too shattering or too shameful an experience to inflict on us. So when I first heard about it from an older friend around 1958, I was disbelieving, then stunned. "Six million dead," he said—and I hadn't even heard about it. I began to study the literature available on that awful massacre; I think I read everything that had been published in English until then on the subject, and I started compiling images, themes, and strategies for a poem about it. Anne Frank had already become an emblem of the Holocaust, though not so much perhaps as she was later, and I decided to use her as my primary symbol, with imagery and locutions from the biblical Song of Songs as a secondary resonance. "We have a little sister and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for. . ." I worked on the poem very hard; it grew, it shrank, but I never could find a form or a music for it.
Then one afternoon I was reading an article by the novelist Thomas Williams about a trip he'd taken through the southern states, about the fear and pain he'd had inflicted on him as a black man. This would have been around 1964; so much about the civil rights movement appeared hopeful then, and it seemed to me that Williams was being unnecessarily negative in his perceptions and conclusions. I started to write a letter to the editor, and to Williams, to explain why the situation for blacks in America wasn't as bad as Williams had made it sound, and from the depths of my political innocence I started to speak about the Holocaust experience to demonstrate why it wasn't. To my surprise, a few sentences into the letter, it suddenly came to rue how wrong I was, that the black experience was, indeed, as bad as it seemed, worse than it seemed, and just as suddenly I was released into the Anne Frank poem: I heard its music, understood its structure, and in the next hour or two or day or two—I don't really remember—I wrote the poem.
I've said more than once to students and interviewers that I learned to write poetry when I was working on "A Day for Anne Frank," but I've never really made clear to myself what I mean when I say that. Thinking it through again, I realize there was something that happened to me as I tried to write that letter to Williams, something about the way I'd had to split myself from myself, the way I'd had to confront the falsity and self-forgiveness of my own attitudes, that had opened up a new way of thinking for me. Without understanding how, I'd created a method of composition for myself that, no matter what stylistic changes my work has gone through, has remained basic to the way I conceive poems. Having to balance two apparently contradictory ethical attitudes at the same time, having to realize the contingency of my own convictions, however apparently heartfelt they might be; to confront them and force them to a more rigorous, more honest level; to make the poem, in a sense, a dialectical event even if the argument with myself precedes the poem itself—as it did in the Anne Frank poem—allowed me to bring the poems to a central position in relation to my own experience, my own sense of the struggle to be fully human. My poems have a double function for me: they are about consciousness, in a more or less direct way, and they're involved just as much with the social, moral world with which my consciousness is necessarily concerned.
Strange, not to have realized this until now; all I knew after the Anne Frank poem was that quite suddenly I seemed to be able to write the poems I wanted to write, in a way that satisfied me, that made the struggle with the matter and form and surface of the poems bearable, and, more to the point, purposeful.