An abbreviated version of this piece was published in this week’s COVID-19 Updates Newsletter. This full version includes an additional poet and some of the author’s own work.
My introduction to poetry was in second grade. A poet came to our class and taught us about cataloguing the world in our black and white marbled notebooks.
When I write poetry I’m trying to go back to those mornings spent in my school’s courtyard, pen in hand, admiring a sparrow, or leaf floating in a fountain, describing things, but also transforming them.
Here are four poets who have had an absolutely extraordinary impact on me, and to whom I owe debts of gratitude so immense and ponderous I don’t even know where to begin, but will try.
When I was 10 years old, my grandfather sent our family a book of Billy Collins’s poetry called Picnic, Lightning. I was young enough that my parents had to explain the Nabokov allusion in the title. I’m having a little fun here; what 10-year-old knows who Vladimir Nabokov is?
Collins’ writing seemed too simple to be as great as it was; the subjects he chose to write about too mundane, to a point where you were so disarmed by the poem’s last two lines tying together a study of “chopping wood,” “going for a walk,” or “eating cereal” into a profound bow that you curled up in a ball on the floor.
Maybe that was just me.
My love for him only grew when I watched him close out the night at President Obama’s Celebration of Poetry at the White House in 2011. Finally, I had a lovely lilting cadence to put to that strong-standing blank verse. Hearing him read his poetry was all the permission I needed, at that age, to copy, so that when I sat down — or stayed standing — to write a poem, the voice in my head dictating was a child’s version of Collins.
I can happily say that 10 years later, that voice has not gone away.
The next poet to make an impact on me came when I was in middle school, when boys sang along the words — and cautiously omitted others — to so many songs of Lamar’s, such as “Money Trees” and “B–––h Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
In the same way I was drawn in by Collins’s reading voice, one that was scholarly and sounded like a book that could speak, Lamar’s flow was closer in age and timbre to my own, which gave it a relatability and vitality that was addictive. It was only a matter of listens before I was murmuring my way through his songs, without even realizing it, going about my day when a line of his would float up to the surface and enrapture. I would look up the lyrics on Genius.com to read the annotations and clarify the actual words, which I sometimes lost track of as singular things, but rather parts of much longer streams of consciousness, memories Lamar was able to conjure through his unstoppable rhythm and rhyme scheme, and the feeling of cinematic action so sweeping it was enough to transport me elsewhere if I turned up the volume.
His song “Duckworth,” which I compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” for a literature class last quarter (the two have more in common than you may expect!), floors me every time I listen to it. Right around the three-minute mark, Lamar launches into a city-block long sentence that spans from past to present, tells an entire story, and in typical Lamar fashion, it is all entirely true.
I was fortunate enough to go with friends to see Maggie Nelson read at Skylight Books in Los Angeles a few years ago. We walked in mid-poem, which, looking back, was perfect, since her poems have a very conversational quality, like spying on a fascinating person’s out loud musings a few tables over.
(For sake of hyperlink, let’s say the poem I walked in on was the title poem from her collection Something Bright, Then Holes.)
I tend to be pretty skeptical and dare I say belligerent when it comes to public readings –– don’t ask me why — but after only a few lines, I, 1) had a crush and, 2) could not wait to hear her read her next poem.
A few days later I went back to Skylight to purchase a copy of that collection, one that she had signed, which I brought with me to school freshman year of college. I associate the poems in that collection with solo train rides on weekends, trying to find solitude in loneliness, her poetry a map for navigating those cross-currents.
Maggie, if you’re reading, let’s grab coffee ☺.
Recommendation: “‘WHAT IS IT?’”
The most formidable and most recent name on my list of favorites; one who I denied was a favorite of mine for a while. I think the reason I never out loud admitted John Ashbery was becoming one of my favorite poets, which was about a year ago, was because I had so much trouble understanding his writing.
Ashbery is often regarded as being as influential as he is inaccessible. In a New York Times review of his 1976 collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, reviewer Richard Kostelanetz comes right out and calls Ashbery’s poetry “extremely difficult” and even “impenetrable.” As someone who likes a challenge, I began exposing myself to his poems, often having to read them over, and over, getting frustrated when right on the verge of seeming to understand, I would fall back into the chasm of confusion with just one line break.
What has helped me to appreciate the seemingly needless challenge of his writing is from hearing from the poet himself, reading and and watching interviews with him. One quote of his that is on the Poetry Foundation’s website provides useful context in deciphering his writing; Ashbery says, “I don’t find any direct statements in life. My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness comes to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation. My poetry is disjunct, but then so is life.”
By accepting that meaning may not be the ultimate gift his writing has to offer, and instead enjoying his brilliant use of language and turns on structure and style, it is like observing a chemist collide particles in a quest to transcend poetry’s individual attributes for something higher, and often, inexplicable.
Recommendation: “Some Trees”
Engaging with these poets has felt like standing in the corner at a dinner party, watching the most amazing people talk all night, and even though I could never sound like any of them (wish, though I might), their authenticity is a tap on the shoulder: they’ve crossed the room, stepped into your corner, and said, Go ahead; what would you like to say?
Honorable Mention: Eileen Myles
I’m including acclaimed contemporary poet Eileen Myles on this list because I have only recently gotten into them, but can already tell they are someone I will be reading a lot of in these coming weeks. I really enjoy the sparse layout of their poems and the way they break up lines in seemingly random (but I suspect very intentional) ways, creating a swirling open-ended system of ideas and experiences. Do check out their work!
Recommendation: “Dear Adam”
To pay respect to these inspirational poets, below you can find an original poem of mine. It is interesting to trace some of the stylistic influences these poets have had on my writing — them and so many others — and in this way, writing becomes an ongoing conversation I feel honored to take part in.
The silver lining
By: Brooks Harris
the clouds hang palladium,
traces of cinnamon.
with ducks’ wingspans, splashing flutters;
the hunting beak
of noon approaches
over the brim
of the Motorola insignia — its shadow
in laminate crosshatches,
negatives of subway passages
that glow with love
and twinkling motes.
Header image by Yusra Shah