Five Poets Who Changed My Life

I hate the idea of “life changing.” It’s terrifying! Who wants to consider their life as a serendipitous bricolage rather than a carefully considered plan? But one must repay good fortune with gratitude, and in that spirit, I thank these poets for their roles in my life.

Tom Sleigh

I’ve never told Tom this, but my nickname for him is “The Unified Field.” When I first encountered Tom as a teacher, I thought of poetry as something essentially autonomous, an art for its own sake. Tom taught me that whatever fascinated me had a history and a flipside, that any idea or device needed to be understood in context, and ethically. Before I met Tom, I thought of my own poetic practice as being part of something that went back more or less to modernism, with some cool renaissance stuff tossed in. Now I think of Poetry as a fundamentally human endeavor, and my context stretches back to the beginnings of human speech and forward into the future of mankind.

Natasha Saje

For over fifteen years, “Agoraphobia” has been the poem I go to when I can’t write. I’ve studied it, I’ve memorized it, I’ve taught it, I’ve painted the first line of it onto a small wooden egg along with tiny decorative cars. A friend of mine gave me Saje’s Red Under the Skin when I was a junior in college, and it’s that book that can never stay on my shelf because I give it away with such evangelical zeal. She taught me that intimacy is the bedrock of poetry. She taught me how to be honest, and she taught me that being honest is not the opposite of being kind.

Phillis Levin

At the University of Maryland, we all idolized Phillis Levin. Her classes were always packed, and I’d heard tell of her brilliance long before I met her. I took as many workshops with her as I could, and in those workshops she taught us to encounter a poem as a material object, to think of language as a medium to be shaped. It’s funny how easy it is to say that language is made up of sounds that need to be crafted and how difficult it is to really grasp what that means. After I moved to New York, I assisted Phillis on the Penguin Book of the Sonnet, which was an education by itself. My favorite poem of hers is “Part” from her third collection Mercury. It’s a perfect embodiment of the human suffering at work in erudition, the ways in which the intellect and emotion can never be disentagled.

W. H. Auden

My favorite work of Auden’s is an unfortunately obscure essay at the very end of Secondary Worlds called “Words and the Word.” In it, Auden not only invents a vocabulary with which to assess the powers of language, he manages to develop a brilliant analysis of human identity and belonging. Auden strikes me as a writer in which everything is possible—there is no note he cannot strike. I’m often baffled by his choices, like why he would follow what I consider the most beautiful lines in the English language (“Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm”) with some tremendous clunkers. Auden’s work, in its variety, severity and playfulness give me the sense that I can do whatever it is I think I need to. He makes me want to rise to the occasion.

Michael Broder

He’s not nearly as well known as he should be as a poet, but loving Michael Broder has been the foundation of my life for the past decade. He was the first person in my life that I felt comfortable writing about, the first person who wanted me to write about him. In the first year of our relationship, I’d get furious about how all of my poems were about him. “You’re hijacking my writing process,” I’d scream, “I don’t write autobiographical poems!!” But just as poetic form requires surrender in exchange for virtuosity, love has its own ideas about what should come next. My poems suddenly had a new vibrancy and urgency. Falling in love with Michael was profound in that it taught me that all of the clichés about love were entirely true, and yet still in desperate need of exploration, if not reinvention. Michael’s poems are stunning in their clarity and intelligence. His poems go to the source of what we think we know, and in re-examining the origins, he finds new ways of seeing the world.