So I focused, during most of the 1990s, on trying to write epic or long poems. I filled lots of notebooks & wrote lots of rejected drafts. Only small bits saw the light of publication: a section from the poem "In RI" appeared in apex of the M; I published a section of "Spring Quartet" in Nedge (titled "In the Darkroom"). I privately printed a lot of chapbooks, which are now in the Harris Collection at the Brown University Library (and not many other places besides my cardboard boxes at home).
What was I thinking, what were my choices then? It's all a little fuzzy in memory now, but I want to try to recall. It seems like the fundamental issue for me was finding an authentic or authoritative style for the inchoate "matter" I wanted to write about, which circled around only a few basic subjects. So I looked to the models, the previous patterns. And the issue of style seemed to hinge on the spine of subjectivity/objectivity. Poetry seems inherently personal, "characteristic": but then how does one avoid the pitfalls of an irrelevant solipsism or narcissism, on the one hand, and a simplistic, evasive, journalistic reportage/narration, on the other?
Pound seemed remarkably capable of turning "facts" into incantation; yet the Cantos seem glaringly, eccentrically arbitrary in both form & topics - despite the arguments for "ring structure" in individual cantos or the Whitmanic quality of diaristic drama (the poem of a life).
Williams (in Paterson) is very fun to read; but for me the weak point of his mosaic method (quoting snips of newspaper articles, etc.) is that in the verse sections, his diction is just not that interesting; the derivative allusions to Pound & Eliot are too obvious. Perhaps deep down he didn't trust his vision enough? He comes across as a poet with passionate, smart, and sometimes right OPINIONS - but maybe they're not passionate enough - they often seem like table-thumping rather than integrated vision.
Crane seems the most successful, because his aesthetic sense is most acute - he doesn't overreach, his epic The Bridge has a formal sweep & flow & finish, despite the weak (bombastic) sections. So it became an element of what I was trying to do to "bring forward" Crane in my own work, because I think his epic, among the others, has been unfairly slighted by the critics.
Zukofsky has an incredibly acute ear, his versification is splendid in places, but he seemed to foreshadow US postmodern poetics' over-emphasis on sound values. I haven't given him a careful reading yet, though; I found something off-putting in the cryptic quality, the dissolving of statement into Mallarmean-pure versification. I admit I'm probably missing something there.
Olson has many appealing traits; many parts of Maximus Poems are engrossing reading. But again I found some off-putting qualities which prevented me from giving him very careful study. I don't like his pretentiousness, his violence, his egocentrism, or his substitution of notation for musical form.
So during the 90s I was seesawing back and forth between a prosaic, Olsonian, grab-bag approach ("In RI") and a rhymed, versified Hart Cranian one ("Spring Quartet") - and turning back from both in frustration to shorter poems & sequences. "Spring Quartet" was first; and despite my initial absorption, when it was done I felt I had not really found a way to unite subjective/objective, personal/historical. The biographical elements did not jive with the historico-literary frameworks. I bounced from there to the more prosaic, quotational "In RI" - but its lack of versification & formal interest bored me; again there was a blank spot between personal narration and social vision which I seemed unable to resolve convincingly.
Toward the end of the 90s I had two breakthroughs. One was when, in turning in frustration away from epic writing, I started a neo-sonnet sequence called Island Road. Suddenly I was writing in a new way, more slangy and informal, but it seemed to work, and it still mostly does. The second happened a year or so later (late 1990s). I began reading Mandelstam's late lyrics ("Voronezh Notebook"); simultaneously I felt suddenly that I could re-frame the Orpheus story as a means of giving voice to that blank area between personal & historical: ie. "Orpheus" would de-personalize the narrator without complete erasure (as tends to happen in the "grab-bag" quotational method). Mandelstam, once again, was the source of a stylistic confidence: the rueful, informal, heartfelt sound of the Voronezh poems served as a kind of Russian equivalent to the sound I had heard in Berryman's Dream Songs & Ted Berrigan's Sonnets (& which helped trigger the "Island Road" sequence).
But I discovered - both in working on "Island Road", and the long poem which became Stubborn Grew and its sequels - that the focus on Orpheus was not just a technical matter. I was responding to a muse-relation, or love. At this point I would only say that - when Montale describes the relation between his poetry and his inspiration as Petrarchan, or "Dantesque, Dantesque!" - I now know to some extent what he's talking about.