Five Poets With Staying Power

Ah, April -- whatever else it is ("cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain," per T.S. Eliot, or the month that "put a spirit of youth in everything," per Shakespeare, or "wet contentious April," as Thomas Carlyle thought), it's also National Poetry Month, inaugurated 12 years ago by the Academy of American Poets. Those poets and poetry-lovers may have had ulterior motives, but bless them for establishing this month-long celebration in the hope that, as the Academy asserts on its Web site, a National Poetry Month lessens the effect if Eliot's right in his judgment.

For me, poetry is personal. I read a range of it and always want more. I often pick poems by their titles, just as I sometimes choose a book by its cover. I have a long list of poets whom I love either because one poem spoke to me or the entire body of their work speaks volumes -- Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Roethke, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dylan Thomas, John Greenleaf Whittier, Deborah Garrison, Mary Oliver, William Butler Yeats. To use an appropriate cliché, the list goes on. But here are five (I'm being forced to choose, but if I were to make this list tomorrow, I might well choose others) who have staying power for me. Their words, their rhymes (in some cases), their thinking, their power have stayed with me over time. They're listed here roughly in the order in which I came to know them.

1. Robert Frost: I might have read Frost earlier than the 8th grade but I remember that it was Mrs. Raach, my fearless leader of a teacher who led us into new lands, including grammar and language and poetry. It was likely in those hallowed junior high halls that I discovered "Mending Wall," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" and "The Death of the Hired Man." I will never forget my first reading of that welcome definition "'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in."

2. ee cummings: It's not surprising that I first fell into cummings at a time when I was in love with love itself, and that I should come back to cummings's love poems (and all his others) again and again. I loved the little I knew about him, especially that from the time he was 8 until he was in his early 20s, he wrote a poem a day. I first read him in college and he seemed to have a vitality that I was drawn to -- the very words had energy. He experimented and didn't pay attention to rules, which I liked and admired but was too risk averse to seriously try. I find I misquote him as often as not, but I always like what I misremember.

3. Edna St. Vincent Millay: I first read Millay at a time when I was burning my own candle at both ends, so naturally her work resonated with me. Look at any of her lyrical collections - A Few Figs from Thistles, Second April (appropriate now), Wine from These Grapes -- but a good place to start is with The Harp-Weaver, and Other Poems, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. So many of her first lines pull me right into the poem and hold me -- for example, "I will put Chaos into fourteen lines," "all I could see from where I stood," and "Love has gone and left me and the days are all alike." She somehow encouraged me with lines like "Oh, the things I haven't seen and the things I haven't known." I read her still.

4. Billy Collins: The mischievous but wise Billy Collins is a poet who writes what I call "real world" poetry - that is, he's someone I recommend to my friends who think you need an interpreter to explain anything that falls under the poetry rubric. His are poems for people who don't want to read footnotes; it's understandable stuff from which you can easily, without working up a sweat, draw your own conclusions. Collins, who was the 11th U.S. poet laureate (in 2001) is kind of the rock star of poetry, giving readings to full houses of adoring fans. Start with "Forgetfulness" from his 2001 collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room, and sail on from there.

Jack Prelutsky, the nation's first children's poet laureate. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

5. Jack Prelutsky: Prelutsky, who in 2006 was named America's first children's poet laureate, plays with words, and anyone who has read him or heard him read can play along. He just makes you laugh, reason enough to rhyme. I first read him when I picked out some of his books for my kids -- Ride a Purple Pelican was maybe our favorite, although it's a close call, with several vying for the top spot. He writes great nonsense rhymes, which, oddly, often make great sense. His Web site notes that as a youth, he didn't like poetry because a teacher "left me with the impression that poetry was the literary equivalent of liver. I was told it was good for me, but I wasn't convinced." Well, I'm convinced that his poetry is good for me. Prelutsky's been called "one of poetry's bad boys." If so, we want more from this bad boy.

Which poets have staying power for you?

-- Evelyn Small

By Christian Pelusi |  April 17, 2008; 6:28 AM ET Evelyn Small
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Jim Harrison is a great novelist but an even greater poet. His conversation in poetry with Ted Kooser (Braided Creek) is one of the most powerful life affirming works I have ever read.
Jimmy Santiago Baca's Healing Earthquakes is an exploration of love so moving it rumbles in your dreams.
James Welch's Riding the Earthboy 40 is stunning. If only he had returned to poetry before his death. His passing left our earth a little poorer.

Posted by: Michael Bartley | April 17, 2008 11:18 AM

I don't read a lot of poetry, but the first line of a Wallace Stevens poem I read in high school has always stayed with me. I don't even remember the name of the poem (if someone could remind me, that would be great), but I found that first line so beautiful: "She sang beyond the genius of the sea..."

Posted by: KLeewrite | April 18, 2008 11:03 AM

I'm more of a reader of fiction, but I often find myself looking back to the early collections of Seamus Heaney, James Dickey, and Derek Walcott. As far as lesser-known poets go, I like James Still (From the Mountain, From the Valley: Collected Poems), Steve Scafidi (Sparks from a Nine Pound Hammer), and Robert Morgan (The Strange Attractor: New & Selected Poems).

Posted by: Neil | April 18, 2008 11:19 AM

For KLee looking for the title of that poem by Wallace Stevens, it's "The Idea of Order at Key West," and you're oh so right, it's a lovely line.

Posted by: Ev Small | April 18, 2008 11:52 AM

I believe it was during Poetry Month last year that I made Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" my home page. It's been refreshing to start almost every day reading a poem. Among your choices, I especially like Collins and Prelutsky. The latter I originally got to read to my kids, but found I enjoy him as much myself. You can hear Collins read his own works at

Posted by: Pete | April 18, 2008 12:01 PM

As a good friend -- and fellow creative writing MFA -- of mine once said, "I hate poetry. It's too f***ing short."

Posted by: Incredulous | April 18, 2008 12:05 PM

More often than I care to admit, I don't understand what a poet is actually saying, or trying to say. One poet, however, who almost always makes me feel alive, and helps me appreciate being alive, is Mary Oliver. She has moved me to slow down, to look at a blade of grass, to note a drop of dew on a crisp morning, to see how water skips around a stone in a stream. What more could I ask for?

Posted by: Eric Goldman | April 18, 2008 2:46 PM

John Ashbury, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 18, 2008 2:49 PM

Billy Collins -- Madmen is one of my favorites. Jack Prelutsky provided fun
times reading with my kids. And, last, but not least, William Blake. I must confess that after nine credits, only The Tyger comes to mind. But, 30 years later, I still smile when I think of the English professor who taught those three courses!

Posted by: aeh | April 18, 2008 3:36 PM

Marge Piercy (every single poem in The Moon is Always Female), Lucille Clifton (wishes for sons), Adrienne Rich ("I know you are reading this poem"), Jeffrey McDaniel (a new favorite), Martin Espada.

I'm petrified of poetry because I know it will say things I don't understand. But so does "safe" stuff like fiction. Dive in!

Posted by: Chris | April 18, 2008 3:47 PM

A college honors professor introduced me to the poems of James Merrill, and I was instantly hooked. While his longer works (collected in The Changing Light at Sandover) are not for the faint of heart, his shorter poems can be very approachable. I wish I'd had the chance to meet him (as my professor had).

I also love the musicality of Conrad Aiken, particularly in his Senlin poems. His were the first modern poems I read whose music sang to me the way Shakespeare's, Spenser's, and Marvell's had.

Posted by: Missy | April 18, 2008 3:59 PM

Noted poet Mary Jo Salter, who has a new collection out, A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems, came in to The Post this week for an interview on Book World's podcast (check it out on this Web site later this week). Having just made up my list of poets with staying power, I put the same question to her. Here's what she said:
"Well, I'll start with a poet who died only a few years ago and lived in Washington, the poet Anthony Hecht. I think he was magnificent and I'm sure he'll have staying power.
John Milton: Milton was a late discovery for me. I of course read him in college, but I became passionate about Milton three or four years ago.
John Berryman: A very odd poet who is unparaphrasable and strange. I think people will be reading him in a hundred years.
So many... well, W.H. Auden: He's my favorite 20th-century poet.
And finally, even though I can't read him in Russian, Joseph Brodsky. He was my colleague at Mount Holyoke until his death in '96, and I've been re-reading him lately. Even through translation, you know how great he is."

Posted by: Ev Small | April 18, 2008 4:07 PM

I can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't read Wallace Stevens in a creative writing poetry class way back in undergraduate school. I was studying 18th Century English poets as an English major, but then took on the poetry writing class as an elective. One of the poems the instructor had us read early on was Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Since then, I have quite often felt that "I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds," but more to the point, that poem and many of his other works have been with me through the years since. I have to say, if there is a 20th century poet I love, I love him.

The other poet I can say immediately and with complete assurance has had a huge impact on me is Paul Celan. I encountered his work in a graduate English literature seminar taught. I can't think of a poem that's more powerful than "Todesfugue."

Posted by: C | April 18, 2008 4:43 PM

For me, it's Wendell Berry.

Posted by: TB | April 18, 2008 4:44 PM

I've got a relatively wide range of poets who tell me things when I get time for them.
JAMES TATE -- He gets better as he carries on in each book and with each progressive book. On the surface his poems read a little like sillyisms, but when read over and over, and broken down, you can find little crevices of righteousness in between the words. Currently reading the Ghost Soldiers, but I always re-read Return to the City of the White Donkey, Memoir of the Hawk, Worshipful Company of Fletchers, Shroud of the Gnome, among others.
DARA WIER. She shares a sense of the surreal with her boyfriend/companion James Tate, but Wier's prowess is more heartfelt and intense, if not a little musical in its composition. Her latest book is Remnants of Hannah, but I believe her best work is in Hat on a Pond. Her other works include Reverse Rapture, The Book of Knowledge, Our Master Plan.
There are others, lots of others. Michael S. Harper, Paul Allen, Thomas Lynch, Richard Tillinghast, Allen Ginsburg, Tony Hoagland, Dylan Thomas, Miller Williams, James Dickey, William Stafford, Richard Hugo, Theodore Roethke, on and on and on.

Posted by: Worthy Evans | April 18, 2008 4:50 PM

Oh, and one specific poem I would have to add to the list. James Wright's "Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota." The last line, coming after some exquisite evocations of nature, was eye-popping the first time I read it. A great work.

GREAT TOPIC by the way!! Even as I'm typing this I'm thinking of a bunch of other poems and poets who I've read with great admiration.

Posted by: C | April 18, 2008 4:57 PM

Lorine Niedecker

Posted by: basil | April 18, 2008 5:13 PM

Wallace Stevens, particularly The Snowman, Peter Quince at the Clavier, Sunday Morning, Anecdote of the Jar;

Ezra Pound, Portrait E'Une Femme;

William Stafford, Traveling in the Dark;

James Dickey, The Performance ("The last time I saw Donald Armstrong . . . ."

John Haines, When the Owl Calls Again;

Galway Kinnell, Another Night in the Ruins;

Christian Wiman

Posted by: Fran Sage | April 18, 2008 6:19 PM

Robert Frost

Luci Tapahonso

Omar Khayyam

Li Po

Federico Garcia Lorca, "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Majias

Posted by: Jim Sage | April 18, 2008 6:23 PM

Any Walt Whitman poem that talks about NYC. THe one where he's yawping Mannahatta! is a pretty good one.

Oh, and Louis Simpson. Most of his stuff is out of print, but I've got his collecteds.

Bob Lowell's "For the Union Dead," Among many others of his.

Dickey's "Cherrylog Road" made me happy about thinking about rambling on like wreckage forever.

James Wright's "Northern Pike."

Arkansans cd wright, Miller Williams.

This is such a great topic. Not so much the best poets or the most impactive, but just poetry in general. Not talked about enough!

Posted by: Worthy Evans | April 18, 2008 9:57 PM

Poetry, I believe, is a literary form that with the added hurdles of meter, occasionally rhyme, and the attempt to explain the profound succinctly makes it a difficult one to pull off often. But when the great versifiers get it just right there is nothing better.
I've found that the following five hit the mark as often as anyone does:
Marlow and Shakespeare(if I may count two sometimes thought of as the same person), Yeats, A.E.Housman, Byron, and Tennyson.
I'd like to pay compliment to some of my faves that are just fun to read: Kipling, Ernest Thayer, Ogden Nash, Arthur Guiterman and Browning's Pied Piper.

Posted by: Dave Small | April 18, 2008 10:00 PM

My list of staying-power poets:
e.e. cummings (good blurb in this blog)
Li Po (nice earlier posting)
Robert Hass
Langston Hughes
Ogden Nash
Zbigniev Herbert
Wislava Zsymborska
Adam Zagayevsky
Octavio Paz
Shel Silverstein
John Keats
Irving Berlin
Ana Akhmatova

Posted by: Dave | April 19, 2008 1:51 AM

Five Poets with staying power:

Emily Dickinson
William Carlos Williams
Jack Gilbert
Wislawa Szmborska
William Shakespeare

Posted by: Fay | April 19, 2008 4:20 PM

Langston Hughes
Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Gwendolyn Brooks

Posted by: tayari | April 20, 2008 1:09 PM

I've been thinking about this list further since my first post -- who else I would include on my personal list -- and I have to say that I think whatever extended list I would come up with would certainly be extremely personal to me. Much more so than a list of favorite movies or novels, I think.

Anyway, I think Donald Hall and Margaret Gibson (Long Walks in the Afternoon) are two poets who I tend to pick up more often than others, and therefore would add to my short list with Stevens, Celan, and James Wright.

Posted by: C | April 21, 2008 4:21 PM

Thanks for supplying the name of that Wallace Stevens poem, Ev! I actually took down my Stevens anthology last night and read "The Idea of Order at Key West" again, and remembered why I loved it so much. Now that I've read so many comments about Stevens here, I'm going to have to actually read the rest of the poems in that book.

Posted by: KLeewrite | April 22, 2008 10:41 AM

Great comments all week. I've loved catching up with them. And, yes, how nice to talk about poetry, even if reading it is quite a personal experience. Your comments have prompted me in new directions and back to some old ones. I, too, love Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, as one poster noted -- in fact, we used a quote from Brooks at the top of the listing of new poetry collections in our poetry issue (and on the Web: check it out on a different page of this books site). Also, I wanted to mention that if you ever get a chance to hear Jack Prelutsky, go and listen. He spoke to a packed tent of adults (and some scattered children) at last year's National Book Festival on the Mall and had the whole place rocking with laughter. He loves puns and peppers his verse with them. In fact he described puns as being "like your children: You can be equally proud of and embarrassed by them at the same time." One of the other things he said was: "I'm not a real poet. There are real poets out there. They tend to agree with me." I'm not a real or imagined poet, but I disagree with him. He makes my list of real poets.

Posted by: Ev Small | April 23, 2008 9:56 AM

I see someone else beat me to Seamus Heaney. My first acquaintance with his poetry came via a recording of a fragment of one of his poems, read by Liam Neeson (which, I'll admit, put a thumb very firmly on the scales in Mr. Heaney's favor, as I would pay good money to listen to Mr. Neeson read the phone book). I soon found myself in my local bookstore, devouring everything I could get my hands on. Mr. Heaney's ability to convey an entire world, and the inner workings of the mind that contemplates it, in a very few perfectly chosen words, leaves me in awe.

Posted by: Susan | April 23, 2008 3:19 PM

Dylan Thomas, forever and ever amen.

I just bought a volume of Hilaire Belloc's work that I'm looking forward to perusing.

Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach"

Tennyson, "Ulysses"

Posted by: Leslie | April 23, 2008 11:18 PM

So many great names on this list. Here's a few I've enjoyed:

Louise Gluck
Gjertrude Schnackenberg
Li-Young Lee
Mary Oliver
William Carlos Williams
Elizabeth Bishop

Posted by: Sappho | April 28, 2008 9:23 AM

This topic has been such great fun. Several years ago when I was often waking up in the middle of the night, I would reach for Wendell Berry to sooth my mind. I love his poetry and prose.
I would also include Mary Oliver, Henry Taylor's The Flying Change, and David Whyte.

Posted by: Elaine | April 29, 2008 1:08 AM

Carl Sandburg
Edna St Vincent-Millay
Ogden Nash
Emily Dickenson
William Shakespeare

Posted by: Kellyw | May 6, 2008 9:41 AM

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