After returning to the US from my year in London, I went back to school, finally (3 yrs later), to finish my senior year. The hangover from my wanderings, a combination of scruples & exhaustion, led me to a new, somewhat firmer renunciation of literature. I needed to do something social & impersonal. At Brown I did a year's independent study of local RI agriculture, and after graduation, I turned a small health food store near campus into a food cooperative (this is a very Minnesota thing, by the way).
5 years later, in the early '80s, my life was quite different. I was married, a parent, a VISTA volunteer working with community organizations in downtown Providence.
Gradually, too, I had been developing what was, for me, a somewhat new approach to poetry. The charismatic-ecstatic-egotistical adventures of the 70s were in a sense projected, vicariously, onto the sacrificial-paradigmatic career of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. I had happened upon a volume of his work (Selected Poems, trans. David McDuff; NY: FSG, 1973) & liked it immediately, which led me to his wife Nadezhda's 2-vol set of memoirs (Hope Against Hope; Hope Abandoned). & this led me back to other poets, with renewed interest: Anna Akhmatova, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale, Ezra Pound...
How to describe my new sense of what poetry was about? I would say I was developing a perspective in which poetry was, as Stevens calls it, "the sanction of life". How so?
I began to think of poetry as a mode of communication which represents, better than any other verbal mode, the actuality of things and experience. What gives poetry this special role is its creative/aesthetic self-sufficiency, its reflexivity. Because poetry is "good in itself", because its language is not simply a delivery-system for something else, but a (partial) end in itself - as such, therefore, poetry reflects or shines forth the "glory" of reality, its inner creative meaning, its character as "creation".
I began to identify with the sacred/sacrificial, the incarnational quality of the vocation itself, as embodied in the lives, and the exalted claims, of poets like Mandelstam, Celan, Dante, Whitman, Crane.
So the hermetic-ekphrastic imagery of Mandelstam & Celan fascinated me, as different expressions of this kind of claim. So the "authoritative", communal poetics of the long poem began to absorb my interest through the 1980s and early 90s, and many experiments in writing followed.
& maybe one can glimpse how my playing with the "incarnational", with the name of Berryman's "Henry", fit into this development out of both the adventures of the 70s and the deeper reading of the 80s.
But does any of this make an impression, relate in any way, to the literary history of American poetry & poetics of those same decades? Where does a poem like this fit in to the "canon"?