Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them

Edited by Carmela Ciuraru

Scribner. 192 pp. $22

"What poem has haunted you, provoked you, obsessed you, made you want to speak back to it?"

Carmela Ciuraru, former editor of the Journal of the Poetry Society of America, posed this question to acclaimed poets across the country in 1996. Over the next few years, she was surprised and thrilled to receive 68 replies. These responses form "First Loves," a funny and provocative collection of short essays about falling in love with words.

Each poem is printed after its tribute, which allows the reader to discover new gems, revisit old favorites and perhaps see them in a fresh way.

Robert Creeley, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, confesses his early obsession with "The Highwayman," a long and purple Alfred Noyes narrative about Bess, the landlord's black- eyed daughter, who is "plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair." Creeley recalls when his eighth-grade teacher "Miss Stolte, blond, slim, quite tall, quick, almost ironic manner, desperate in a way I can now recognize, lonely, disdaining, speedy, begins to read . . . 'The Highwayman,' which I find wondrous, arousing, sensual beyond anything I can put words to. Already the world shifts and transforms, becomes suggestive, half-hidden, with the center of that man 'riding,/ Riding, riding, riding . . .' "

The poet Jonathan Galassi, editor in chief of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, chooses Shakespeare's Sonnet 23. ("As an unperfect actor on the stage/ Who with his fear is put besides his part.") He also shares his own first effort, "Sonnet at Fifteen," which commences in (Bob) Dylanesque style: "To raise an infant running rock aright/ twist weeds and circus loves in crowded chains/ paint bristling babies' graves, divorce the night . . . " (He reports further that his young folly was later singled out for scorn in the Harvard Lampoon.)

The first poem to "invade the burgeoning imagination" of poet Daniel Halpern, editorial director of the Ecco Press, was "Sunday Morning" by Wallace Stevens. ("Complacencies of the peignoir, and late/ Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,/ And the green freedom of a cockatoo . . .") Says Halpern: "Here is the word made palpable. . . . The sensuality of that language flavored every cup of coffee and every orange I'd ever eat. . . . Nothing had prepared me for the magic and the sound of this language."

For those keeping score, Stevens wins as top inspiration-- three of his other poems were chosen by James Tate, Daniel Bin Ramke and Star Black. (William Butler Yeats gets second place.) Many of the featured poets admit to young flirtations with Mother Goose, though nobody officially votes for her. Lawrence Raab and Wanda Coleman, however, salute Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." Pulitzer Prize winner W.S. Merwin confesses to early adoration for Robert Louis Stevenson's "Where Go the Boats?" (Full disclosure: I myself was quite partial in my youth to Stevenson's "The Shadow.") Two choose popular songs: E. Ethelbert Miller was moved by Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," sung by Judy Collins, while Eleanor Wilner was entranced by "The Lady Is a Tramp," by Rodgers and Hart--the sole shared credit here.

In her introduction, Ciuraru writes of "experiencing profound loss in adolescence," and dedicates the book to the memory of her mother and father. In college she was transfixed by Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art." The first stanza begins: "The art of losing isn't hard to master;/ so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster."

The most poignant entries are also emotionally revealing. Grace Schulman, an American Jew who was haunted by news of Nazi brutality as a child, was mystified by W.H. Auden's "O What Is That Sound." ("O what is that sound which so thrills the ear/ Down in the valley drumming, drumming?/ Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,/ The soldiers coming.") Going through a difficult divorce, Elizabeth Macklin focuses on the "mantra prayer of Auden's 'Time will say nothing but I told you so,/ Time only knows the price we have to pay;/ If I could tell you I would let you know.' " Macklin describes it as "the most unalloyed love poem I could come up with then, and the most unalloyedly obsessive . . . to keep from crying on the subway."

Virginia Hamilton Adair's pick is "Along the Road," a poem that her father, Robert Browning Hamilton, wrote and published in Century magazine before she was born. It's a double quatrain about a man who walks a mile with "Pleasure," then with "Sorrow." Adair remembers "His walk with the second girl in the poem, Sorrow, made me a little uneasy. I wanted him to walk with the first girl, who sounded like more fun."

Sherman Alexie, who grew up in poverty on an Indian reservation, first fell for "My Papa's Waltz," by Theodore Roethke. The tender love song to a drunken father begins, "The whiskey on your breath/ Could make a small boy dizzy;/ But I hung on like death:/ Such waltzing was not easy." Alexie found nothing foreign in the violence or the sadness. "I saw my father in that poem," he writes. "And I saw myself."