A reading given at the Newburyport Literary Festival on 26 April 2008
While I was still an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut in 1959 the late Harold Vinal, editor of Voices: A Magazine of Verse —which was published from his ancestral home island, Vinalhaven, Maine — wrote to ask me if I would be willing to review some books of poetry. I agreed and wrote “A Trio of First Books,” my first review, which Mr. Vinal published the same year. This may seem precocious of me, even uppity, perhaps, but I had spent the four years after high school, 1952-1956, in the U. S. Navy teaching myself how to write, and I had published my first poems in a national literary periodical, The American Poetry Magazine, in 1953, so that by the time I got to college I was, if not a seasoned veteran of the literary wars of the period, at least an experienced recruit, well-published for my years, to the irritation of some of my teachers at UConn and the admiration of others. Mr. Vinal, for one, was familiar with my work, which is why he wrote me. Unlike the work of E. E. Cummings, who in apparent retaliation for a rejection wrote the poem titled “Beauty Hurts Mr. Vinal,” that editor had been publishing my poems for four years, since 1956.
Harold Vinal liked the review well enough to ask me to do another, but I felt a bit diffident about writing a second one because I had never consciously thought about being a critic — in fact, I disliked the idea; therefore, I had no system for criticism. All I had done in my first review was to state my opinions as cogently as I could. Before I accepted my second assignment I felt I had to sit down and think about what it was I was doing, both in my own writing and in my comments on the poetry of others. I soon arrived at the idea of the “levels” of poetry, the “typographical,” the “sonic,” the “sensory,” the “ideational,” and the “fusional” which, in my second review for Voices, “The Poet’s Court,” I at first called the “images” of poetry: “Poetry is a series of ‘images,’ if we can conceive of such things as music, philosophy, idea, as well as retinal impressions, as images.” I had no notion of doing anything more with this critical system until, during that same summer 0f 1960, I paid a visit to the University of New Hampshire Writers’ Conference and heard my friend and publisher, Loring Williams, using it to teach a workshop in poetry writing. I asked him where he had gotten it, and he replied, “From your review in Voices.”
While I was a graduate student in the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa during the previous academic year 1959-60, I had conceived the plan of writing what would eventually become The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, on which I worked for the next seven years. Taking my cue from Loring, I organized the book around “the levels of poetry,” and since its publication in 1968 that system has become familiar to poets and teachers throughout the U. S. as has, I am afraid, my criticism, probably to the detriment of my reputation as a poet which, according to R. S. Gwynn, has tended to be eclipsed by such of my books as The Book of Forms (1968, 1986 and 2000 in different incarnations), Poetry: An Introduction through Writing (1973), Visions and Revisions of American Poetry (1986), The Public Poet (1991), The Book of Literary Terms (1998), The Book of Dialogue (in various incarnations from 1989 through 2004), and the articles I’ve written for various periodicals, collections and reference works.
I have therefore decided to celebrate the birthday of The Book of Forms by reading some of the poems I wrote with my partner in rhyme Wesli Court (an anagram pseudonym of my real name), to illustrate some of these levels and patterns. The first one I’d like to read, then, is the first poem of mine that Harold Vinal published in Voices, about his home state, Maine, where I have spent most of the summers of my life, and all of my retirement years so far. It is an example of the triversen, the invention of William Carlos Williams, which I analyzed and named while I was still in the Navy, floating around the world on an aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet: