classics scholar there named Benjamin Schwartz. He had been one of theresearchers into Linear A, and he knew about the Hittites and the earlypre-Greek civilizations that became the remnant Greek societies in AsiaMinor. For some reason I was interested in that.
Then I switched to Penn State and studied English, still took someLatin but gave up on Greek. I took a poetry course with John Haag, afine poet who had been a student of Theodore Roethke’s in the very sameclass with Richard Hugo and Caroline Kizer. Everything Roethkesque,a way of thinking about the tasks of poetry, I picked up from Haag andfrom the rumors of Roethke that lingered on at Penn State long afterRoethke moved on. Haag was brilliant and countercultural down to hislong white hair and black leather pants. I don’t know how he got into theUniversity of Washington as a thirty-eight-year-old merchant seamanwho went from shipboard to Roethke’s classroom. He was a good closereader. And he was kindly as well. A lot of the poems I was showing himat the time were pretty bad, but he had a way of making them better andof not making you feel bad about how bad they were. He was a real goodteacher in that way.
WALPOLE: Who were your greatest literary influences?
BALABAN: I read everybody. I read Robert Lowell, and I went to Harvard just to be in his seminar. I read William Carlos Williams with thesame enthusiasm, so I was grabbing at everything. I found a grandeurin the sense of tradition that went way back in English poetry throughRobert Lowell, and there was a wonderful breaking of that tradition inthe excitement of language that made it possible for poetry not to be “aschool thing, a book thing or a church thing” (as Saul Bellow writes inHumboldt’s Gift) but something that had to do with your own personallife right now, with whatever you were looking at at the moment. Thatwas the great thing that remains about William Carlos Williams.
Williams was a very early influence because I knew a family whoknew him. In fact, he was the doctor who had delivered two of my highschool friends. Their mother sent him some of my poems when I wasabout eighteen, and he wrote back something nice. He was encouraging.I started reading him more carefully.
But I was also interested in Wallace Stevens and more formal poets.From Stevens, I got a sense of this business of public and private poetry