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When Carmela Ciuraru, former editor of the Journal of the Poetry Society of America, asked poets to recount their first experiences with verse, the response was astounding. Poets ardently selected the poems that made them fall in love with poetry, commemorating the sparks that led to a lifelong commitment to the architecture of language. The result, featuring many Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poets, is a marvelous anthology of poignant, intimate, often humorous essays accompanied by the poems that inspired our most celebrated poets. Regardless of your relationship to verse -- reader, student, writer, or someone entirely new to its myriad pleasures -- First Loves is sure to enchant and delight.
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In 1996 the editor of the journal of the Poetry Society of America asked several poets to write about their first verse loves. So inspiring were their responses that the feature became a series, and now we are lucky enough to have 68 contributions in book form. Surely every poet in First Loves hopes that his or her choice will increase that work's audience; some even cheat and include several other objects of affection while they're at it. John Hollander, for instance, gets in everyone from Robert Louis Stevenson to A.A. Milne to Rudyard Kipling to James Weldon Johnson before settling on James Hogg's "A Boy's Song." Similarly, Elizabeth Macklin tells us, "It depends how far back you want to go," giving herself the chance to tout Frost, Lorca, and Countee Cullen en route to anointing Auden's wistful villanelle "If I Could Tell You."
Though they range from the serious to the whimsical (Billy Collins begins with "My first love was a tall, thin brunette named "The Flea" by John Donne that I met when I was in college"), most entries stress their choice's power and mystery, its ability to transform, console, and enchant. Some contributions are short and sweet. A.R. Ammons's single paragraph allows John McCrae's "In Flanders Field" the starring role it deserves. Ditto for Richard Howard's two sentences on Browning's "My Last Duchess." On the other hand, Eavan Boland's six paragraphs preceding Yeats's "The Wild Swans at Coole" set her moment of discovery at 15, and also manage to encompass what's past, passing, and to come.
Of course, singling out some for high praise is to omit many inspired and inspiring others. Readers will be struck, for instance, by Wanda Coleman's choice of Lewis Carroll's classic: "Perhaps because when he freed Alice in the mirror, he also freed my imagination and permitted me to imagine myself living in an adventure, sans the restraints of a racist society." "Jabberwocky" also figures in Joyce Carol Oates's and Lawrence Raab's entries, and one of the delights of reading First Loves is seeing which poets pop up more than once. As several make clear, Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses merits a grown-up audience too. There are of course Yeats and Auden, Wordsworth and Dickinson, but also the now unsung Alfred Noyes and Swinburne. If anyone can rescue the latter from neglect, it will be Ursula LeGuin: "Some might consider this like a thirteen-year-old finding that Southern Comfort tastes nice. (Get that away from her! Quick! Pour it out!) But Swinburne took me past story, past meaning, into the pure music of the word."
In many ways, Carmela Ciuraru's anthology is a subversive plea for the power of control, discipline, and study. These artists have spent endless hours with their forebears, and know that their vocation requires discipline and knowledge in addition to inspiration. Heather McHugh is clearly none too happy that one of her graduate charges "asked in class just who was this John Donne I kept mentioning." Yet First Loves both prods and delights, and the participating poets have planted a very adult garden of verses. --Kerry FriedAbout the Author:
Carmela Ciuraru is a graduate of Columbia University's School of Journalism and a former editor of the Journal of the Poetry Society of America. She lives in New York City.
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