I read an article of the top ten poets who most influenced the article writer's life and wondered what my list would look like. I offer my top ten list here and today, in honor of National Poetry Month.
Having been told by one professor that my work is influenced by her writing, how could I deny Dickinson a spot on the list? I also overheard someone say that if one more whiny women read Dickinson at a reading he was going to . . . well, I forget what he said. What I remember is that I came to the next reading and recited Wild Nights which is an incredibly erotic piece of poetry which I introduced like this: I am now going to recite a poem by one of my favorite authors. This allowed the audience a chance to listen to the words without preconceived notions and it went over with a bang. The guy was in the audience. He didn’t say anything to me. But I took a peek, as I was reciting the poem, and I didn’t see him tuning out or turned off by what he heard. Not until I said, “That poem is by Emily Dickinson.” I have too many fond memories of her poetry not to put her front and center.
An Honorable Mention goes to William Shakespeare. Yes, I realize that he should be in the top ten “surely” but the truth is that his writing is so elevated and beyond my abilities to ever achieve that I cannot list him as influential in my life. However, I fell in love with his writing and Dickinson’s at the same time, almost as a single breath, so they are irrevocably linked in my emotional mind.
I grew up at a time when Plath became iconic, a poster child for feminism and the consequences of artistic suppression. Now, as an adult, I suspect I would have to say that there are others who are more influential but Plath is the poet that let me know it was okay to be angry on the page, to bleed and scream and keen in verse. Her poetry was deeply explosive for me. (On a side note, I was once asked to do a reciting of Lady Lazarus.) She also wrote with brutal images and suddenly poetry didn’t have to be hillsides of daffodils with fluffy clouds. It could be seashells and concentration camps and raw, much as emotion is. Poetry could be passionate and, although I had read passion behind the more flowery poetry traditionally read in the classroom, it was Plath that showed me what I already knew: most emotions are only pretty because we try to hide the truth of what we feel in language.
An Honorable Mention goes to Tori Amos whose songs are more poetic than most and who comes musically closer to anyone I have ever heard in achieving Plath’s brutality. (Although it’s tempting to say that Ani DeFranco comes damn near close herself.)
Pastan’s delicate poetry invited me to write about things that are simple. Sure Dickinson wrote about a fly buzzing and a certain slant of light but she wrote about Death stopping and hope with feathers and with all her odd capitalization and punctuation I found her voice daunting. Pastan showed me that the simple things in life–a family, a home, the weather–could be appreciated in a universal way through a simple poem. In my mind, she is like Astair, making it all seem so effortless and, yet, what she does on the page is pure magic and it excites me every time I read her words.
An Honorable Mention goes to William Carlos Williams who also wrote about the simple things in a simple way, reminding us all that poetry is everywhere if we have ears and hearts to hear.
I can’t even begin to describe what Smith does because she is so flagrant. She writes persona poems that blow most anything else we call contemporary poetry out of the water. Her recent collection on Hurricane Katrina was devastating to read. I have every one of her books and watch for the next book to be published. I envy anyone who is attending college and being taught by her. I imagine she would be brutally honest but bring out the best in every one of her students. (I adored her even before she read one of my poems and said she hoped to someday perform on a stage with me. I mean . . . wow! Really? Me? Wow.)
An Honorable Mention is given to Staceyann Chin who would have easily made this list if she had published more poetry but whose memoir still haunts me with its voice and poignance. And I really do love performance poets.
The poets who wrote the Psalms
The poetry in the Bible, especially in the Book of Psalms, written by David and others, reminded me that poetry didn’t always have end rhymes and perfect meter. I still choke on some of the forced syntax one reads in such poems. It was in reading the Psalms I was reminded that before the Poetry we all think of as poetry came to be the norm, you know back in the day when free verse was scandalous and not considered poetry at all, there was poetry that didn’t have the same rules and that the rules that defined poetry are, like language, constantly changing and growing. Of course, the imagery and familiar metaphors were also lovely to discover in a book I never read as a child nor owned until I was an adult.
An Honorable Mention goes to Sappho. After reading Anne Carson’s luscious translation of Sappho’s texts, including the fragments that barely have more than a single thought let alone an entire sentence, inspired me to write again. What higher praise is there for a poet than “You inspired me to write”?
My love for haiku being what it was, it wasn’t until I first read Issa’s The Spring of My Life that I discovered haibun. This “discovery” opened my eyes to new possibilities for my own writing and how I might once again play with hiaku. Although I still do not own a copy of his book (although I had a copy on my wish list last year and will put it on future wish list I’m sure), the impact of first reading it, of finding a very lovely translation of his poetry as well, further showed me the power of a good translation. As challenging as it is to translate prose from one language to another, how much harder must it be to translate poetry, to create the same depth of meaning in a similar voice, using imagery that may not communicate as clearly from one culture to the next? I can’t imagine it but what an amazing experience it was to lose myself in this man’s incredible voice.
An Honorable Mention goes to Basho, naturally, the master of haiku. I would even concede he is the better of the two. However, the list is supposed to reflect the poets that influenced my life and, therefore, Issa take supremacy this time and always in my heart.
TS Elliot/e e cummings
I have to put these two as a tie because they both frustrate me and excite me. Elliot’s The Four Quartets, however, has a permanent home on my shelf and is a book I read and reread the way some people claim they read the Bible. As for cummings, his audacity is inarguable. He doesn’t bend the rules so much as throw them all away altogether. Because they both hit me at pivotal turning points in my life, I can’t say which is more influential now. I still find myself breathless when I read a leaf falls on loneliness (a poem I used in my student teaching experience) and delight when I read grasshopper. And that I return to these two again and again and never tire, always finding something new, tells me that I either read them superficially each and every time or that they grow with me as I change through them. But I couldn’t put one or the other as an honorable mention. I blocked myself in trying to make a choice.
His poetry opened up the idea of poetry for me in new ways. I appreciated contemporary poetry a lot more after reading his works and then appreciated poetry in general more. His blatant sexuality was something I loved, how he celebrated everything, the blood and piss of living. He wasn’t the first homosexual poet whose writing made me thrill but when I read much of modern poetry, I can’t help but read Whitman’s influence between the lines. What he and Dickinson were doing was explosive, not just moving away from tradition but throwing it aside altogether as if tradition was of no consequence whatsoever.
An Honorable Mention goes to Robert Frost who has a style so unlike Whitman’s that they can’t really be compared but whose poetry surprises me when I make the time to read it.
I fell in love with Lorde’s work by accident, mostly because her name excited me on some level and I was curious about who this poet might be. And then the words. And then, much later, her journals about having breast cancer. Lorde’s writing is fearless and fierce. Not always an easy combination to have in poetry and not always easy for the reader to appreciate. But she made me reconsider many things about the choices I was making in my writing and in my reading. She made me think and she made me feel. Provocative. Bold. And inspiring, naturally. For me, anyway. She tickles the militant feminist in me, the one that I often forget is hiding deep down inside. I don’t let her out to play nearly as often as she’d like.
An Honorable Mention goes to Maya Angelou, although I once had a professor say I write better poetry than she does and I still think he was exaggerating, and Lucille Clifton. I like them both but I looooove Audre Lorde. And Nikki Giovanni. I love her too but I’m trying to make choices here.
This is a totally selfish choice because we have this mutual fan thing going on. She says I inspired her to write. I say her writing inspired me to write more. She envies me my ability to come up with so many ideas. I envy her for her success because she’s been published while I continue to languish in anonymity. Plus she’s pretty and has a great figure and she’s happily married. I mean, seriously, what’s not to hate? But I love her and I love her writing and, although she’s moved onto other forms of writing and doesn’t do open mics any longer, I still read her poems and smile. It helps that one of her poems was one I was often requested to perform at open mics.
An Honorable Mention goes to Greg Brown, unpublished and so talented it sometimes hurts, he actually encouraged me to the point where I took my poetry more seriously and let other people read it. Up until then, as I told him, I was clearly performing literary masturbation by writing notebooks of verse and not letting anyone else read what I wrote.
This is not a case of saving the best for last, per se, but if I really were to say which poet influenced my life the most then I would obviously be remiss to not add myself to this list. After all, I am the one who chooses to write, to revise, to share, to read, to speak, to live.
An Honorable Mention goes to my mother who, although not a poet herself, truly has a poet’s heart and taught me more about art and the appreciation of all things beautiful than practically anyone else I know.