Essentially I am a metaphysical poet, which has always kept me out of step with modern poetry tends. That is to say, I am interested in expressing the experience of dissolving identity, while the primary focus of the contemporary poet, it seems to me, is in defining his or her identity. The few readers that the contemporary poet finds generally identify with the poet’s politics, gender choices, race, or opinions and beliefs.
In my youth I wrote quite a few poems that, to my knowledge, are now lost. I once wrote a sonnet a day for 54 days but in the end felt that the sonnet’s tight form pushed me toward abstractness. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience were important to me in those early years because I began to see that I could write lyrics that had a richer story and a wider arc by using ballad meter and rhyme. Blake led to reading the other romantics, particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were both masters of the ballad.
Lorca was also a revelation in those early years. So many of the great English-speaking poets lived in either England or New England, where the weather is drab and cold. Lorca showed me how to be a poet of the sun and the heat and consequently of the California landscape, which is very like the Spanish landscape. The Girl in the Green Dress and many of the Divan poems are good examples of how the California climate became a backdrop for some of my poems. I’ve always liked the idea that a poem has a season attached to it.
I wrote most of these poems to read aloud to friends. I don’t want to disparage William Carlos Williams and E. E, Cummings who took some pains to make their poems look unusual on the page; it just wasn’t something that inspired me. For me, a poem on the page should give an indication of how it should be read aloud. For a time, maybe three months, I experimented with odd forms, but all but one of those poems, Farewell, were lost. That poem has a clear debt to Williams.
In my middle years I was a great traveler, so many of my poems are set in Paris or London or Saint Petersburg or Venice or Athens. Wanderlust is a theme that is part of many of my poems, but it found its most palpable expression in three poems: The Prodigal Son, Jet Lag, and Travelogue.
The Divan poems were an experiment in speaking for a group; about half the poems are ‘we’ poems and half are ‘I’ poems. At the time I thought it was important to chronicle the many different kinds of love, so those poems got mixed up with the poems that were exploring group consciousness. The name comes from the meaning of divan, which can mean both a group of poems and a society or council of people.
The poems in Letters to Humanity are more philosophic in nature. Questions are asked and resolved, not with words or ideas, but with images. They are more complex than the other poems and less linear. They meander and sometimes add different ideas to the mix, as if a second voice had entered. I have always envisioned that poetry, like philosophy and other art forms, is a discussion through the ages. Homer can tell us a story, and Euripides can tell us the same story with a different theme and point of view. Wallace Stevens wrote a poem about a jar on a hill in Tennessee that is thought to be his response to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, written a century earlier. We write poems to add a new voice to the discussion.