Instead of five poets, five poems. Though ultimately it’s just as appropriate to say that the five poets who wrote these poems have changed my life, too. Each of these poets has a legacy of work that I have pored over through the course of my life as a writer. And, in that time, their poems have inflected and questioned, problematized and affirmed the shapes I have made in my own poems, the subjects I have approached, the grammar of my experiences as those experiences found their transit to the page. I choose a particular poem from each poet because it seems to me that in saying we love certain poets best, we actually mean the handful of poems by those poets that we love best. For each of us, those poems—so various and eccentric and secret from each to each—enter the mind and alchemize into autobiography there. Which is only to say that, in my case, these poems haunted me into becoming more of who I am.
“Sweet Things,” Thom Gunn. “He licks the last chocolate ice cream / from the scabbed corners of his mouth,” Gunn’s poem begins. And what follows is a coolly observed essay on the sometimes grotesque urges that propel us toward the title’s sweet things: fruit, ice cream, bakery goods, tricks. Apollonian and Dionysian often in the same poem, Gunn had a poetic civility that clearly banked the fires of enormous passion. Passion that could declare at one moment, “My boy / I could eat you whole,” only to regulate itself into the collected rhetoric of “We know delay makes pleasure great.”
“The Morning,” Tim Dlugos. Well before Gunn’s famous volume The Man with Night Sweats, the poetry of AIDS was written by Dlugos, who took the aesthetic melancholy of the New York School and darkened it with the obliterations of a plague. The poem’s first line: “The vitamin-charged slush of Total cereal.” And the last: “Then / back through the Narrows to the endless sea.” And between those two lines, the frenetic wit and referentiality that make Dlugos’s poems disarming, memorable, genius. Between fun and death, there is this: “I risk playing the fool / because this is a world I am creating.”
“The Mad Scene,” James Merrill. When Merrill is talked about these days, often hovering near the discussion is the context of Merrill’s financial and cultural privilege, with his smoothly formal poems seen as markers for that privilege. It’s hard to argue against the fact that Merrill wrote from a place of centrality, but that fact belies this truer fact: every poet is in search of an adequate periphery from which the world, and the self in the world, can be finally lamented. “Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry,” Merrill begins. And ends: “As the lean tree burst into grief.”
“The Chestnut Branch,” Thomas James. In James’s case, the adequate periphery turned out to be a place where death could be meditated upon. In beautiful and painful poems, James paradoxically gives vitality to death, to the imminence of death, to the longing for it that his speakers voice. In the process, death gives something like a mythological gloss to psychological subject matter that is, in other poets’ hands, banal and confessional and therapeutic. “There is something to be said for darkness / After all,” James begins his poem, even though it is a poem about spring.
“Self Portrait as Shards of Mirror,” Reginald Shepherd. A blizzard afternoon in New York City: I still remember the first time I read Shepherd’s first book, Some Are Drowning, and my feeling, as the afternoon and the snow deepened, that I had been given another dimension of my own privacy. Like the other poets I write about here, Shepherd was a great love poet, which means that he gave a new angularity to the old arc of love: seeing, longing, grieving. “You’re the handful of reasons I know / and won’t say,” this poem begins, once again invoking that heartbreaking second person: you.