Jonathan Mayhew recently posted about that poem that draws one to a writer's work, only to find out that the rest of her work doesn't...quite...click. I commented that I'd call this the "The Feed They Lion" effect, after Philip Levine's pulse-raising, anaphora-working, phenomenal early poem, the first strophe of which is still one of the most exciting I've ever read:
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
I mean, Jesus, that's good. And though Levine wrote other decent poems, none of them ever had the thrill for me--or the ear, the command of syllables--as "They Feed They Lion." If I didn't know he'd written it, I wouldn't guess that he had.
Jonathan mentions Strand's "Keeping Things Whole" as another example (I never liked that one, but I know what he means: it's more striking than most later Strand). And he wonders, well, is this because nothing excites us as much as the first poem we love by a poet? Whatever we encounter first, we love most (I think of hearing a cover song repeatedly before hearing the original, and never liking the original as much, even if it's clearly better). I'm not sure. And I think there's a reverse capacity--to be turned off by the first poems one reads by a certain poet, only to later be shocked at intriguing work from the same hand ("Anyone lived in a pretty how town" in no way prepared me for "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands").
Somehow, with Levine, I think it's more to do with that poem than with the fact that it's the first I read. I'm sure I read it in an anthology and that it was followed up with some competent other Levines--it wasn't like it was years before I'd come to read the so-so stuff, or that it wasn't contemporaneous with Lion.
Where did that one come from? A dream? A high? A more electrifying poet channeled?
(PS--at GMU we were assigned the classic "7 up, 7 down" experiment where you choose a poem and replace each noun, verb, etc., with one you find roughly 7 up or down in the dictionary. I ended up with "They Federalize They Lips" [grin])