5 Poets Who Changed My Life

Robert Frost

A hardback The Poetry of Robert Frost was a prop on the living room coffee table in my childhood home, and (I think) my first introduction to poetry.  I liked the music, the pastoral.  Later I learned that what seemed “just another kind of outdoor game,” as the speaker says in “Mending Wall,” was subversively deceptive; was, in the words of Randall Jarrell in his influential essay “The Other Frost,” “ingeniously and conclusively merciless.”  No one taught me more about the delicacy of metrics and emjambment, about how to write beautifully and pitilessly and effortlessly.  North of Boston is one of the greatest books ever written; “Mending Wall” is perhaps as complex and important a Modern poem, in its breakages, in its hitches, as “The Waste Land.”  And, for me, it’s better poetry.

Debora Greger

Debora Greger was my first poetry teacher, my eventual MFA thesis chair, a woman who saw my queer hunger for words and openly yet frankly critiqued my work, showed me that every choice, every word, every punctuation mark, was critical to the success of a lyric.  If this were all, she would be on this list.  But her poems, her poems!  She’s a martini-dry comedian, allusive, elusive, and cooly sexy; a lovely example is the poem “Off-Season at the Edge of the World,” which ends thus:  “I love you as I love salt, the ancients said. / Everywhere I lick you, you taste of it.”

Thom Gunn

In high school, when I was going through a touching though embarrassing Romantic phase, I read Thom Gunn’s “On the Move” in a textbook, and whoa: bad boys, “gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,” and formalism!  I wanted to doff my Byronic collar and throw on a little leather.  Later, I discovered the heartbreaking AIDS elegies in The Man with Night Sweats, and the knowing erotic commentary of his work, as in “Sweet Things” in The Passages of Joy, maybe my favorite book of Gunn’s, where he writes, “We know delay makes pleasure great.”

Elizabeth Bishop

The poems of Bishop are unfailingly modest and magical; she is the master of the fine detail, the build, the list, and her meticulous architecture has a way of simultaneously building a firm foundation yet unsettling my expectations, suggesting yet charitably not naming a loss, as in “The Bight,” where upended boats are compared to “torn-open, unanswered letters.”  And she wrote what I think is a perfect book of poetry, Geography III, which holds one glittering poem after another, such as “The Moose,” “One Art,” and the poem that breaks my heart every time, “Five Flights Up,” an unassuming scene of an “unknown bird” and a “little dog,” of so many things unsaid; it ends with these words:  “—Yesterday brought to today so lightly! / (A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift.)”

Donald Justice

Donald Justice was my college poetry crush, the one I never got over.  He was our Orpheus, looking back though something in him knew that when he did, the moment would recede into the shadows.  I love his formal restlessness, his reliance on other texts and translations—what one might call tradition—to fashion his own works.  Here’s a poem by Donald Justice that I have memorized so that it can stay with me always.

Villanelle at Sundown

Turn your head. Look. The light is turning yellow.

The river seems enriched thereby, not to say deepened.

Why this is, I’ll never be able to tell you.

Or are Americans half in love with failure?

One used to say so, reading Fitzgerald, as it happened.

(That Viking Portable, all water spotted and yellow—

remember?) Or does mere distance lend a value

to things? —false it may be, but the view is hardly cheapened.

Why this is, I’ll never be able to tell you.

The smoke, those tiny cars, the whole urban milieu—

One can like anything diminishment has sharpened.

Our painter friend, Lang, might show the whole thing yellow

and not be much off. It’s nuance that counts, not color—

As in some late James novel, saved up for the long weekend

and vivid with all the Master simply won’t tell you.

How frail our generation has got, how sallow

and pinched with just surviving! We all go off the deep end

finally, gold beaten thinly out to yellow.

And why this is, I’ll never be able to tell you.