Jonathan Mayhew on Reading Poetry

Reading poetry is essential to learning to write it. But what should you read? We asked Jonathan Mayhew for some recommendations.

Jonathan Mayhew is Professor of Spanish at the University of Kansas and the author of four books about poetry --Claudio Rodríguez and the Language of Poetic VisionThe Poetics of Self-Consciousness: Twentieth-Century Spanish PoetryThe Twilight of the Avant-Garde: Spanish Poetry, 1980-2000; and Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch -- in addition to numerous scholarly articles and reviews.

Reading Poetry: A Conversation with Jonathan Mayhew

Q: Are there any books that you would recommend as a starting point for new readers of poetry who are looking for an orientation?

A: Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days. For younger (high school) writers, his anthology Sleeping on the Wing, edited with Kate Farrell. Both these volumes contain excellent poems and commentaries in easy-to-understand language. You can’t go wrong with Koch or with Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry. No matter what the exact starting point, all roads lead back eventually to the “good stuff.” The advantage of starting with Koch or Zukofsky is that the path might be better illuminated.

"A historical sense gives more depth to one’s writing and enlarges one’s sense of poetic possibilities."

- Jonathan Mayhew on reading poetry

Q: Could you recommend some poets who are not as well-known as they deserve to be?

A: Lorine Niedecker. David Shapiro. Bernadette Mayer. Joseph Ceravalo. While these writers are well-known in the circles in which I travel they deserve even wider attention.

Q: Could you recommend some interesting collections of poetry in translation?

A: Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris edited the first two volumes of Poems from the Millennium. The third was edited by Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson. These books contain many poems in translation as well as poems written originally in English. The University of California Press series Poets for the Millennium is also highly recommended. I’m a big fan of Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain, a classic anthology of Chinese poetry. I would recommend reading the same poet in multiple translations: this is an excellent way to learn about the variability of translation practices. I have multiple translations of Basho on my shelf, and I’ve learned as much from the bad ones as from the good.

Q: Could you recommend some contemporary poets who are doing something particularly innovative and interesting with form?

A: The late Leslie Scalapino. The Canadian poet Christian Bök. The visual poetry of the Spanish poet José-Miguel Ullán. Those are three examples that come readily to mind. What is interesting, though, is that these three poets do not resemble one another in the least. If I had listed three others they would also be completely different from one another: the possibilities of poetic form are virtually inexhaustible.

"True originality, paradoxically, comes from imitation. The less a poet has read, the more clichéd his or her poetry is likely to be."

- Jonathan Mayhew on reading poetry

Q: Are there any particular poets who you think are excessively admired or imitated by beginning poets?

A: I was going to say E.E. Cummings, but I don’t think any heartfelt admiration for any particular poet is harmful. With enough reading, the young writer will transcend any “bad influences.” Cummings, whatever his limitations, is a also a superb craftman to whom we condescend at our peril. Sometimes we get fixated on a single influence when we are younger, trying to learn as much as possible from his or her work. Usually this is beneficial, and we move on to other poets in time. A weaker poet will be exhausted quickly, so there is little risk there. Imitating a stronger poet can be risky in a quite different way: in this case the young writer will have to break away at some point so as not to be overwhelmed. On the other hand, many poets have made an entire career out of imitating a single successful model such as John Ashbery!

True originality, paradoxically, comes from imitation. The less a poet has read, the more clichéd his or her poetry is likely to be.

Q: Any other general thoughts on what aspiring poets should be reading?

A: In the first place I think they should not read exclusively in modern and contemporary poetry. That is the most common mistake I see. A historical sense gives more depth to one’s writing and enlarges one’s sense of poetic possibilities, since poetry, in past epochs, has been many different things: satire, epic, panegyric, lyric... They should learn at least one other language well enough to read and translate. They should also avoid the passive approach, the mere acceptance of the popular poets of today.

Music and visual art should be just as significant to them as poetry: poetry is a synaesthetic art form. The poet should be a “professor of the five bodily senses” (Lorca).

Q: Could you tell us something about your book, Apocryphal Lorca?

A: With pleasure. This book is a comparative study of how contemporary American poets assimilated the influence of the great twentieth-century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. I look both at translations (Lorca and Rilke are the most translated modern European poets) as well as “apocryphal” recreations of the Lorquian style by poets like Jack Spicer. I tried to write this book in a readable style but without sacrificing scholarly rigor. Some readers have told me that they frequently laughed out loud. I did not try to be gratuitously comic, but the material I was dealing with is inherently fascinating and occasionally quite amusing. I hope it reaches a wide audience. 

Reading Poetry - Next Steps

Did you enjoy this interview on reading poetry? You might also like our conversation with Michael Klam on poetry slams and translating poetry.

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