Favorite poets' society

I’m convinced that some people like to write, and some people like to analyze literature---and I'm of the former variety. I don't like having to look at literature a certain way and read things into it, and frankly, often that makes me miss the magic of its art. Pushing around sounds and relishing life is more my thing. Learning from authors, don’t get me wrong, is good, and studying technique utterly essential. I once wrote an entire paper on the use of rhetorical techniques like aposiopesis; I know, how normal is that?!

I’ve always learned through semi-osmosis; I play cello pieces after listening to recordings, and I write after the syntax and rhythms of other poets are in my head. A lecturer once told me that we all have about five authors whose work informs ours deeply, whether or not intentionally, and we should stick with them, study them, see how they put things together.

When a friend recently asked about 15 authors that have influenced me, I thought it would be hard to narrow. As it turns out, my list of favorite poets remains slim, natural, accessible, and very, very American:

Jane Kenyon
Billy Collins
Mary Oliver
Elizabeth Bishop
Ted Kooser

There are things I adore about so many others. But at the end of the day, those five are mine, and I cherish their thoughts and sounds, their clear metaphors. I come back to them because I like their outlook on life, their intense noticing.

And although they are not all poets, these writers have changed how I think about life:

Don Paterson (on language)
Kate Spade (on style)
Wendell Berry (on agrarianism)
John Taylor Gatto (on education)
Rod Dreher (on community and urban planning)

My favorite book of all time, incidentally, is Christy by Catherine Marshall, because her voice is so close to mine, her desires so me. This book, part fiction, part fact, was one reason I thought I'd like a year in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee teaching here. I did.


For what I learned there—that learning doesn’t matter as much as contentment in any circumstance—I am grateful to those kids.