Happy National Poetry Month! On Tuesday, I shared how I’m celebrating by visiting new poets and practicing my own imagery skills through haiku writing. Today, I want to pay homage to the poets who have helped to make me the writer and editor I am today. This list is far from complete—I’ve been exposed to poets from Nash to Poe, and each one of them has a special place in my heart. Poetry isn’t my first love, but I wouldn’t be the same wordsmith I am today without it.
I was reading when I was four, so my mom gave me my very own poetry books early on. The first two I remember are Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. I was young enough to think that being six years old was definitely a huge step up from being very young, and I loved that the author of Winnie-the-Pooh had created special poems for kids my age. Milne’s poems always stuck with me as a remarkable example of understanding your audience—no matter how young—and writing something that actually connects with them. It’s so much more impactful than simply going with common assumptions of what that audience ought to receive.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson’s poems are short and sweet, and they’re the first ones that I learned by heart. My mother picked out some of her favorites for me to memorize, and I’ll never forget the words to “The Cow.” That was my first lesson in how wonderfully words can take shape orally, not just on paper. I still read most poems out loud to get the fullest experience! Stevenson was also another grown-up who understood what children are really going through—there was no other way he could so perfectly capture my own sentiments in “Bed in Summer.” Now, when I write and edit, I often read the pieces out loud so I can connect with them more deeply and pick up their full nature.
“Jabberwocky” isn’t my favorite poem, but reading Carroll’s famous piece still made an impact on me. Inspired by words like “brillig” and “slithy,” I tried my hand at my own nonsense poems in elementary school. They didn’t make anywhere near as much sense as Carroll’s did, so I learned that writing isn’t just about the meaning of a word—it’s about the sound and context, too. The same principle applies to prose. Both fiction and nonfiction pieces can be made stronger through the sounds and order of the words.
I don’t actually know a lot about Noyes, but I do know that his narrative poem “The Highwayman” is one of my all-time favorite poems. I love sad, inspiring stories, and Noyes tells that kind of story here. Even more intriguingly, he shows how a story can practically be music through rhythm, repetition, and imagery. A lot of my students think it’s depressing; I think it’s a beautiful story of love and sacrifice. My goal is to someday use sounds, images, and stories together to create art that rich.
Robert Frost has been one of my favorite poets for years. When I first read his poems in school, I appreciated the down-to-earth tone of his work. He is the poet who taught me that a poem can have a meter without having a rhyme, and his are the first poems that I learned to analyze and understand more deeply. Words can convey both stories and ideas, and the best writers do both at once. Robert Frost understood that, and his poems taught it to me, as well.
Billy Collins single-handedly redeemed modern poetry in my eyes. My college poetry classes were difficult, and I wasn’t a fan of free-form poetry. There were no familiar rhymes or rhythms to engage me, and worse, the content itself felt inaccessible. Then I read a poem by Billy Collins. It was simple, funny, and somehow deep at the same time. I read several more of his poems and was hooked. He’s now on my bookshelf—and my favorite poets list. I’ve learned that no two creative works are alike. I might hate some poems and stories in a certain form or genre, but that doesn’t mean I should dismiss the rest. I definitely blame my current mouse obsession on “The Country.”
Neruda’s poems are the first that I read and loved in a language other than English. From the love of simple words and people in “Ode to Criticism” to the intimate adoration in “Tu Risa (Your Laughter),” Neruda’s poetry is full of passion. However, his beautiful words don’t ring as true in the English. No matter how good the translators, something will always be lost when the original language gets left behind. That realization only increased my fascination with words and languages, and I would love to someday be able to read all of my favorite foreign authors in their native tongues.
Help me add to my list!
There have been others, too—Dickinson, Angelou, Shakespeare—who have added something rich to my life. Even the ones who didn’t teach me a specific lesson helped shape the way I look at words and the world around me. That journey isn’t over yet, either. Even while I focus on writing and editing longer works of fiction and nonfiction prose, I’ll keep reading poetry. I’m not a poet, but those who are have a lot to teach me.
What about you? Are there any poets or poems that have stuck with you over the years? I’d love to hear how poetry has influenced your life, and I’m also eager to get more recommendations for my list. Please share in the comments!
I’ll be sharing an accompanying post on the lessons I learned from poetry over at 10minutenovelists.com, where they’re celebrating the month of April with a series on beautiful words. In the meantime, check out some of their other posts. If you’re a writer, you’ll find some useful tips.