I’m always surprised at the ease with which some book bloggers can choose favorites. I find it very difficult to choose just one favorite book, or even one favorite prose writer among the dozens that I read often. Favorite poets, though, is another kettle of fish. After hearing one BookTuber talk about her favorite novel, I realized that, while my list of favorite books or authors is and will probably always be a little hazy, my list of favorite poets is surprisingly clear-cut. I can even rank them, though just a hair’s breadth separates them.
I could spend (and have spent) hours writing about any one of these people, but I’ll try to, as concisely as I can, explain why these three are my favorite poets.
1: Seamus Heaney
Reading Seamus Heaney for the first time marked a sea change for me. Previously, I had—with the exception of W. H. Auden—only read poems 100 years old or older, firmly convinced that all “modern” poetry was post-structuralist crap that was more trouble than it was worth to try to understand. I looked up Heaney after a friend recommended his translation of Beowulf to me. I had never heard of Heaney at this point, and when I read in his translator bio that he had published several collections of poetry, I remember rolling my eyes a little. Oh, another one of those modern poets, I thought. Even so, morbid curiosity led me to look up some of his poems on the Poetry Foundation anyway.
Four years and twelve books later, I have to say that my relationship to poetry is very different, and not just because I’m not engaging in that type of “chronological snobbery” any more. Among other things, reading Heaney changed my ideas about language itself. I was used to talking about the use of “language” in literature and pointing to a specific tone or certain connotations or denotations exploited by the author, but I never really gave much thought to the particular language (perhaps I should say tongue instead) that the poet wrote in: the regional, historical, and social factors that gave rise to his speech. It occurred to me after reading Heaney that, just like the particular words and images themselves, a whole language could be charged with meaning and provide yet another facet with which to reflect the poem’s inner truth.
That then allowed me to better appreciate other poets for whom their mother tongue was an integral part of their identity as poets, particularly Czesław Miłosz.
2: John Donne
I started reading Donne when I was seventeen (an aside for English teachers: if you want teenagers to care about poetry, John Donne is your man). I happened upon this video from a Poetry Out Loud competition of a contestant reciting his “The Canonization.” It was unlike any other poem I had ever read. The rapid-fire show of images and allusions felt like sensory overload, and yet, I loved it. So, I started seeking out other Donne poems. Not only did his strange comparisons and his fast-moving trains of thought continue to delight, but I also found a kindred spirit in his religious poetry. Some Donne fans, I know, tend to think the religious poems are too dark or dour. For me though, at the time, I resonated deeply with Donne’s regret and anxiety in the face of his own sin.
Really, Donne changed my ideas about nearly everything: God, poetry, the body, all of it. The fact that he was willing to embrace subject matter that had previously been deemed “unfit” for poetry showed me how art could encompass all of life and breathe new life into it. His bold declarations of doubt and anxiety regarding his faith, and then his fervent avowal of God’s ultimate power, were a boon to me at a time when I was very doubtful and anxious myself. And his frankness regarding the body in his poetry, and his eagerness to mix the spiritual with the earthly, changed some of the ideas I had previously regarding the place of the physical world in the life of the spirit. In every way, he’s an essential author for me.
3: Czesław Miłosz
Miłosz is the kind of writer I wish I could be, although I know I never will. He has such incredible range in his poetry, taking in the “big picture”—the universal truths underlying the universe and the whole sweeping arc of history—as well as tiny, tactile details of appearance, color, sound, texture. Jane Hirshfield credits him with helping to introduce intellect into modern American poetry—helping make it acceptable for a poet to think out loud in his poems—and I appreciate that aspect of his work too. Like Donne’s metaphysical poems, his embrace of intellect and philosophical themes broadens the horizons of poetry even further.
And then there’s another aspect of his work that I barely even know how to describe: a feeling that I get not just about it, but about everything else after I’ve read it. Adam Zagajewski came close to describing this feeling in a poem titled, aptly enough, “Reading Miłosz”:
Sometimes your tone
transforms us for a moment,
that every day is sacred
that poetry—how to put it? —
makes life rounder,
fuller, prouder, unashamed
of perfect formulation.
When I read Miłosz, I get the idea that there’s a whole other dimension to human life—to the life of the mind, the spirit, even of the body—that I didn’t know about before. That sounds very strange, I’m sure, but that’s as well as I can express it.
And there you have it: my three favorite poets of all time. Who are yours? What do think of these three? Let me know in the comments.