by Dan Masterson
The fine poet, William Stafford, once wrote that he inhaled others’
poetry and felt that he should therefore exhale some of his own. He was
a voracious reader and writer. Amazingly, very few young poets follow
his lead. They tend to turn away from the vast archive of poetry
available to them.
One reason seems to be that they fear they’ll be influenced by reading
the poetry of others. Another reason is laziness. History shows that
artists in all genres discover their own voice by studying the masters.
Painters, dancers, singers, and yes, writers of all sorts. Even poets!
It’s a good idea to do something physical before settling in at your
writing desk. Go jogging or punch a boxing bag for a few rounds.
Anything that gets the blood moving and the muscles tingling. Read after
you’ve finished writing for the day. That way, you won’t need to worry
about sounding like anyone else.
Some morning soon, jog down to your local library or bookstore and come
away with books by the following Modern poets. Walt Whitman, William
Butler Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers,
T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Theodore Roethke.
The next time you jog to town, bring home books by the following
Contemporary poets: James Dickey, Li-Young Lee, Galway Kinnell, John
Allman, Anne Sexton, James Wright, Richard Wilbur, and Gary Snyder.
Then, to help flesh it all out, trot on back to Main Street and collect
books by Miller Williams, Anthony Hecht, Lucille Clifton, William Heyen,
Dylan Thomas, Gwendolyn Brooks, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop,
Baraka, Mark Strand, Sylvia Plath, Russell Edson, Paul Zimmer, W. D.
Snodgrass, Ai, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Donald Hall, Ted Hughes,
Derek Walcott, and Anthony Hecht.
Following this article, you’ll find a longer list of poets you should
read when you’re not punching something or running somewhere or writing
or revising. I’m betting that every poem you read will help you realize
something about your own work.
Whitman, W. C. Williams, Gary Snyder, Collins, Brooks, Frost, and Mark
Strand will help you relax the language and its syntax. Hecht, Eliot,
and Wilbur will show you how to rhyme without allowing it to dominate
your work. Kinnell, Allman, Lee, Roethke, and James Wright will clothe
you in their characters’ skin and allow you to observe the world as they
do, and James Dickey, Yeats, and Jeffers will tell you stories you’ll
wear a long time.
Thomas, Heyen, Hughes, Berryman, Bishop, Eliot, Auden, Walcott, and
Miller Williams will teach you to dance through imagery, while Plath,
Sexton, Olds, Snodgrass, Baraka, and Ai will take you for a jog on the
darker side, only to meet up with Clifton, Zimmer, and Edson who’ll get
you laughing at yourself and the rest of us.
Remember what Stafford said up top: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. I
think you’ll discover that it works just fine. Let me know what you
And if you’re curious about my stuff, you can
read my first two books online at