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First Loves

Poets on the first poems they adored. Edited by Carmela Ciuraru, and expanded into her anthology First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them.

Yusef Komunyakaa: First Loves

Perhaps it was how the poem's title first wedded my tongue, without any hesitation, conscious negotiation, or humbug: "Annabel Lee." It seemed as if some deep part of myself already knew the rhythm and emotion of this name—a Southernness in its music. But Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee" also ushered in a disquieting mystery and the strange feeling of eavesdropping on something almost taboo.

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Ntozake Shange: First Loves

I always knew I liked poetry more than anything. More than boys. More than butterflies. More than fresh sheets on a hot St. Louis night. I'm not sure I liked poetry more than dancing or Jackie Wilson. Or sleeping on the second-floor screened porch when even fresh sweet sun-dried sheets were no match for the weight of the air of my sister's wandering limbs.

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Lynn Emanuel: First Loves

It was 1967 or '68, and I was a college freshman in Dr. Warner's (or Warren's) class, working my way through The Norton Anthology of English Literature. It was early in the term. I know this because "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," which we were reading, is at the beginning of that two-volume set, barely half an inch into the eight inches that begin with "Caedmon's Hymn" and end with T. S. Eliot. I was having a miserable time. I loved literature, but I didn't love to read. Those sudden moments of erasure—when my self seemed to disappear from my body and seep into the book, when the book absorbed me, took me up and gave me its shape—I found, and still find, a painful and difficult act of devotion. A book was God. I was its pilgrim.

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Henri Cole: First Loves

From the start, I was drawn to poems that resisted my intelligence. In the poems of Hart Crane I found this resistance especially exciting because they were by a homosexual often writing about love. I read them at a time in my life when love and poetry were the only things that mattered to me. Not surprisingly, one was the source of pain and the other was a kind of painkiller.

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W. S. Merwin: First Loves

One great stroke of luck for me, as I came to realize much later, was growing up hearing poetry read aloud from the Bible after breakfast—my parents reading to us, that is, before my sister or I had learned to read. The practice never developed much momentum, and it tailed off like the keeping of most journals, but it left in my ear the sound of my mother's voice (I knew my father's from church) reading psalms. The voice was the same that she used for everything but it was refracted by this remote, resonant, lingering language. I loved that more than I knew at first.

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Ursula K. Le Guin: First Loves

On the bookshelf of the house where I spent summers as a kid there was a small dark-green book called, I think, Fifty Famous Narrative Poems. A real sexy title. But on long August days in the Napa Valley when it's too hot to move, a kid will read anything. Coleridge was in it, and got really deep under my skin, but Macauley's Lays of Ancient Rome were in it too, and my brother and I can still recite antiphonally, sixty years later.

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Maxine Kumin author photo
Maxine Kumin: First Loves

In grammar school when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, Miss Blomberg exhorted us to memorize work by such sterling American poets as Longfellow, Whittier, and Lowell. Gold stars were given out to those who could rise, face the class, and recite flawlessly, or nearly so, parts of "Tell me not, in mournful numbers / Life is but an empty dream" or "Blessings on thee, little man, / Barefoot boy with cheek of tan!" or, in my case, a sizable chunk of James Russell Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal."

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Marie Ponsot: First Loves

Thanks to lullabies, prayers, and Mother Goose, I had this much by heart before I could talk: Words say that people are present. And some words come together to make a place. It takes shape in the little stillness it causes to surround it, pleasing both speaker and listener.

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Leslie Scalapino author photo
Leslie Scalapino: First Loves

My first knowledge of poetry, in junior high and high school, was Homer and Shakespeare; and Greek tragedies, which are also poetry. I went to Reed College, where I took a poetry course from Kenneth Hansen in which we read Williams, Moore, Eliot, Stevens and Pound. I remember loving the poems of Williams, Stevens, and Moore.

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