My Own Twenty-Five Most Influential Poets
(Among Those Writing in English)
1. Charles Olson: He mixed the vastness of cosmos and creation with the rootedness of self and place and then put it into inescapable, unforgettable proto-Indo-European music. He made life real, beyond sentimentality or prettiness. His voice is like the background noise of the Big Bang itself, just as white and rough, just as etiological and creationary. That’s what makes him Numero Uno for me.
2. Robert Kelly: He brings angels, gods, goddesses, spirits, entities, and magical landscapes into being as effortlessly as a leprechaun, and he always finds the perfect hermetic pivot, a sacred moment, and croons it with its own unlikely caesura, its forgotten minor chord.
3. William Blake: He found a timeless, transcultural voice—as varied as the proverbs and paradoxes that the Earth’s incarnation throws at us, its creatures. He was unintentionally modernist well before modernity, thus he casts modernity’s shadow over itself. He was willing to be rhetorical, obscure, even unmusical, in order to stay authentic to an unerring inner vision and to provide (therefrom) parables and epics in place of open-and-shut stints of mere poesy.
4. Edward Dorn: He brought the fine essence of minded edge into the hubbub and jangle of human engagement, as he captured the subtext of dialogue, the subtext of his own subtext, and then the subtexts of that. A ruthless instigator and investigator of subterfuge motive and meaning, he turned modern politics into ancient song, while creating a sheer ontological poetics.
5. William Butler Yeats: His voice stretches from yearnful innocence and the elusive beauties of youth to the haunted clarions and oracles of an aged avatar. His imagery is as classic and indelible as figures and landscapes on a Chinese vase. What rough beast indeed! What hour? What indignant bird?
6. Charles Stein: My original peer writer, Stein is equally lyrical and nonlyrical to a fault. He strikes at the original quality of raw sound, yet he manages to catch stray feathers with a skink’s tongue. He also provides sudden roller-coasters down into the ravine of absolute and inevitable portent. He is the Dzogchen yogic clarinet poet.
7. Robert Duncan: He purveys the hymnal and fairy-tale (qua nightmare) quality of the Earth’s affairs in odes and prophecies. His chanting voice is old and rich and mythically thick, as it maintains a continuity with esoteric bards all the way back through the Middle Ages to before the written word. He uses poetry in the original sense–to summon gods, to inspire troops into battle, to speak to the ancestors in a tongue beyond language.
8. John Keats: He invokes the rhythm of original image and form, footfalls of archetypal events among the ordinary sights of a day in England, while he returns objects to sacredness, to the gods who proposed them–negative capability in a timeless nightingale or Grecian urn.
9. Matthew Arnold: In essentially two poems, “Dover Beach” and “Palladium” he wrote a entire chorus and epitaph for Western civilization. At his best, he commands the most uncannily augural combinations of words, rhythms, and sounds, as though composed by a lyrical spectator viewing us and our world from beyond space and time—at once apocalyptic and ecstatic—and always racing like the shadow of the Moon over dusk to wrest unexpected phonemes into eternal meanings. Even at less than his best he captures the cadence and tinge of our once and future epiphany. From 2013:
I recall the words of Matthew Arnold, his bull’s-eye dart out of the nineteenth into the heart of the twenty-first century, nailing the Earth we inhabit as it vibrates across eons in the same uncertain space: “…the world, which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new,/Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;/And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.” (Dover Beach, 1867).
Yes, a land of dreams, to lie before us; ignorant armies for sure and neither light nor help for pain—not really; no lasting joys, no certitude, no unconditional or claimless love.
But it is a place also quite various and beautiful and new. That is how it appeared to me in childhood and young adult life, with my children as they grew up. That is how it appears to millions of people having a good time across this fateful interzone: now an epiphany, now in mourning and despair; now at a soirée, now the victory bash; now a cursed lot.
10. Robert Creeley: Speaking as if through a reed or an instrument of finer construction and attention than language or even sound itself, he sings electron paths and insect-scale deposits of jive into minimal song, as he brings his mind behind the music and the meter’s meaning down to a single jazzlike flow that follows itself, not tautologically or repetitively, but down to its ipseity, its binary core.
11. William Wordsworth: He elicits the nostalgic quotient of the world, its intimation of immortality, as it is wrung through language. More formally lieged to English than the above poets (who try to unleash the parlance under the King’s, whether Greek, Indo-European, or deep-syntax Earth), he polishes our local lingo itself to a worthy and elegant status, echoing Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Spenser, and other great chanticleers who preceded him.
12. Lindy Hough: My wife’s poetic voice has always been there, creating the rhythms, shapes, and pauses to which I respond. It is fully internalized in my own voice, bringing its jaunty irony and magical realist imagination to my thoughts and words and making everything lighter and more livable. It is also there under the syntax of our daughter’s esteemed literary voice.
13. Percy Bysshe Shelley: The original mantra qua rock-song explodes through his verse to make a many-colored glass of Hinduism, Christianity, and paganism while pouring sheer energy through provincial poetics. He is a forerunner of Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, and Alan Ginsberg.
14. Paul Blackburn: He demonstrated the poetic quality of just about everything, as he made nests of every available straw, clunk, and rubric. He was vernacular, dangerously playful, celebratory, and filled with the magic and music of the ordinary. For a work imbued with regret, his resounded with in-your-face joy.
15. Andrew Marvell: Among the older echoes of our original tribal beat, he conveys the universality of existence and the inextricable throb of the first pagan dance. The origins of English remain in his odes, but they are also near to the vernacular street, the peasant’s lament, the modernity of his time; thus, they convey that perpetual, unchanging tension between tradition and radical awakening.
16. Diane di Prima: She is like an old Buddhist zen master caught in twentieth-century traffic, but she is also like a Weather Underground guerrilla inclined by Heart and Spirit to make music rather than munitions. The fact that she can’t evade her own clear song and its perfection is torqued against her forever being required to betray it as commodity, so she is in the service of demolishing while healing every foe and traitor.
17. Theodore Enslin: In the long, flowing canvass of his many-songed symphonies, voices rise and fall, figures of homeopathic and obcure history imprint themselves and dissolve, bright-colored pebbles glitter in streams and fade. He is after the ineffable, yes, but he never stops the orchestra or cuts off the loom to seize its illusion.
18. George Gordon (Lord Byron): It is almost as though poetry catches him while he is doing everything else but—and that is the beauty of it.
19. William Carlos Williams: His albeit self-proclaimed clarity is unmistakable, as it translates the many-scattered sensations of “monkey mind” into laser-like surds of language and sense. Many would put him in the top five, but no one can keep him out of the top twenty.
20. Ed Sanders: His simultaneous strophes of outrage and jubilee combine in a metaphysical, minstrel-like evocation that is as much Egyptian Book of the Dead as Andy Warhol or Lou Reed. He is a poet of the cities and the plains, forerunner of gonzo journalism as art and also the blog.
21. Walt Whitman: He could almost be missed because he is so omnipresent and contaminated: the voice behind many of the other big, bombastic American voices that we take for granted, from industrial art and aesthetics to the Big Screen to Heavy Metal to the constant degenerate pounding of the advertiser and snake-oil salesman. He preserved this voice in its crisp beginning, so we can always return to his version of it and then ream off the pervasive kitsch, propaganda, and demagoguery of our bloated time.
22. Phillip Mahony: He was a New York City police poet when I discovered him in the eighties, but that merely underlies and understates the fact that he is as pure, passionate, and mournful any Irish bard as I have ever heard. Though made musical by the pain and violence of his day job, he manages to rend muggings and drug deals into ancestral dirges and immemorial goat songs.
23. Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones): Beneath the revolutionary agenda are pure epistemology, hiphop, and blues.
24. Allen Ginsberg: How could it be otherwise? I resist him, but he is irresistible and, when he is at his best, he is pure Blake and Yeats, pure Tibetan lama and Talmudic oracle. The sound and tone of his work are relics of our half-remembered dreams and our dream-like fugues, laments, and bawdy festivals.
25. Simon Ortiz: With him come all those Pueblo, Navaho, Hopi, Apache, Choctaw, and Dakota voices that fill my head and remind me that, to indigenous Homo sapiens in the Americas, the land was not wild and savage but sacred, bountiful, and alive with the Blessings of the Great Mystery.
I know that these are almost all men, but that’s the way it was. HD, Mary Oliver, Lenore Kandel, Denise Levertov, Joy Harjo, and Diane Wakoski were never that far off my list.