5 Poets Who Changed My Life

1. Adrienne Rich

I can’t tell you how I knew what the ladder was for.  But when I read “Diving Into the Wreck,” the title poem of Adrienne Rich’s 1973 collection, I hoped no one else in my class could see how exposed I felt.

That first year of college, I frequented the library, the anonymous stacks where knowledge lived.  It was dark and cold and utterly safe, so why was I terrified and sweaty-handed touching the book called A History of Homosexuality?  I took the book quickly, keeping its spine against my body so no one would know what I had touched, what had touched me.  I walked down the dim stairs, down to the basement.

The ladder is always there, the speaker says, and you only know what it’s for if you have to use it.  I descended, I discovered my name.  Though it would take me years to write it, and even longer to be comfortable with it, Rich gave me courage and consolation.  She writes in “The Phenomenology of Anger,” in the same groundbreaking book:  “Every act of becoming conscious/ (it says here in this book)/ is an unnatural act.”

“There is a ladder.

The ladder is always there

hanging innocently

close to the side of the schooner.

We know what it is for,

we who have used it.


it’s a piece of maritime floss

some sundry equipment.”

—Adrienne Rich, “Diving Into the Wreck”

2. Mark Doty

I am sitting in my professor’s office at Stetson University.

I’ve just come out to her.  In a poem, no less.

She has photocopied the entirety of Mark Doty’s  My Alexandria.

I read the book in my room, shades drawn.  I read it first for the sex.

There is sex, of course, but it’s described so beautifully.  It titillated my vocabulary.

After I read the book again, I am in love with Doty’s fierce elegance, his precise descriptions, the control he wields in braiding together disparate narrative and lyric threads.

Mark Doty changed the scope of poetry for me.  His poems gave me permission to write my queer life:  to see as beautiful what I thought would destroy me.

3. Paul Monette

Paul Monette was dead for three years before I read him.  Even typing that sentence fills me with the most unnamable sadness.  AIDS took away so many of our artists and writers: dethreading the work of so many voices, undoing us.

And if you don’t think that I’m mad as hell about it, you’re wrong.

I love Paul Monette’s memoirs perhaps more than his poems, but I love Eighteen Elegies for Rog especially.  They are powerhouse of emotion, rants against death, the word holding back illness and erasure with every full syllable.

Take a poem like “The Worrying,” with its double-voice and its rough handling of line.  Here’s a snippet, towards the end of the poem, picked up in mid-sentence:

“Thanksgiving morning I went to the grave two over

beside you was six feet deep ready for the next

murdered dream so see the threat was real

why not worry worry is like prayer is like

God if you have none they all forget there’s

the other side too twelve years and not once

to fret WHO WILL EVER LOVE ME that was

the heaven at the back of time but we had it

here now black on black I wander frantic

never done with worrying but it’s mine it’s

a cure….”

This was the kind of poem that took Whitman and put him on blast.  The kind of poem which used syntax and rushing language and startling figure to evoke raw emotion.  The kind of poem huge with energy, with importance.  The kind of poem that isn’t about trees.  The kind of poem that deploys words to record—and, because they can record, to heal.

4. Reginald Shepherd

I grew up reading the Greek myths:  stories of deception and sex, rape and adultery, loss and war.  And, let’s just say it, a lot of homoerotic stuff going on:  Apollo and Hyacinth, Apollo and Cyparissus, Apollo and… Well, maybe it was all just Apollo.

Reading Reginald Shepherd’s Some are Drowning, I was enthralled by the way the poems use myth to enter and convey desire to the reader.  “Tantalus in May,” for instance, allows the poet to voice gay desire by using mythic figure, a move I find incredibly tantalizing.  The poet dramatizes the speaker’s desire for “White boys, white flowers,” and says that “the utterance itself is adoration, kissing// stolid air.”  The language, the act of making it, satisfies and pleases, though the desire wants to find flesh.  The speaker’s race makes him feel out of touch and reach, in the hell of desire, since his tongue is “burnt by frost.”  So, he can’t taste those white boys he wants so bad, and this sours desire for him:  the poem ends, “I hate every lovely thing about them.”

There’s something political about putting gay desire at the center of Western Civilization’s mythos about itself and its identity structures.  There’s something rupturing and pleasing and beautiful.  And though this pleasure to disrupt and assert the margin-as-center is ancillary, it is nonetheless immense.

5. Susan Mitchell

No one likes the child I write on the chalkboard.

My students feel so bad for the kid—his parents don’t like him, his teachers don’t like him.  No one likes the child

To point the gun at them.

I write this line on the board, and you can feel the lights go on, the room awakens.

This is what happened to me reading Susan Mitchell’s poem, “Smoke.”  It wasn’t until I read this book that I really understand what the line could do alongside the sentence (or, versus the sentence, or in tandem with the sentence).

But what I really love about Rapture, Mitchell’s second book, is its huge rangy poems, which might begin with a child pointing a gun and end, as “Smoke” does, with the image of that child after she has grown up, holding smoke in her mouth after sex “as if it were precious.”  These are big leaping poems: brave, conversational, unafraid to take on taboo subjects, unafraid to expand the lyric at the service of intellect and emotion in the poems.  In poems like this, we are always jumping, we are always arriving.