10 books that shaped my writing life

A nearby library recently received a grant to buy poetry. What books, they asked me, would you suggest?

After brief dismay (money to buy poetry?! this is a rare and wonderful occasion), my mind raced and whirled. How to choose? Award-winning books? Classic poetry? Contemporary? Regional? Mainstream favorites? My latest favorites?

After all the mental hubalub, I offered the following list of books I learned from and loved, the poetry collections that, though I didn't recognize at the time, shaped my writing life:

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich
With a close command of language and line, Rich masterfully unspools experience.

A conversation begins
with a lie. And each
speaker of the so-called common language feels
the ice-floe split, the drift apart

Live or Die by Anne Sexton
Sexton was master of confession (long before social media saturation).

But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask
why build.

What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland
This book delivered revelation: a poem can be funny, witty, sarcastic, sad, and tell a story, and all at once!

The sparrows are a kind of people
Who lost a war a thousand years ago;
As punishment all their color was taken away.

The Way It Is by William Stafford
A model of productivity, Stafford wrote over 50 books — and his first was not published until age 46!

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson
Is this book a very long poem, or a semi-short story? Carson calls it “a fictional essay.” I call it brilliant.

XXIV. And kneeling at the edge of the transparent sea I shall shape for myself a new heart from salt and mud.

A wife is in the grip of being.
Easy to say Why not give up on this?
But let’s suppose your husband and a certain dark woman
like to meet at a bar in early afternoon.
Love is not conditional.
Living is conditional.

50 poems by e.e. cummings
Cummings showed me what language could do, what a poem could be.

love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more freqent than to fail

The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda
Yes, poems can be silly, surreal and stirring.

And what is the name of the month
that falls between December and January?

Why didn’t they give us longer
months that last all year?

And three more — not poetry, but poetic:

Dear Diego by Elena Poniatowska
A poignant, delicate story of art and unrequited love, told through letters.


Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
As a younger writer, this book provided comfort and relief.

And it occurs to me that there is a proper balance between not asking enough of oneself and asking or expecting too much. It may be that I set my sights too high and so repeatedly end the day in depression. Not easy to find the balance, for if one does not have wild dreams of achievement there is no spur even to get the dishes washed. One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras
Tight, lyrical prose turns this intimate story about sexual awakening into a poetic, searing story of love.

Note: Don't worry, this process didn't dismiss local and lesser known poets. I also composed a list of regional favorites, and another poet gathered a list of Oregon's award-winning poets.

Now it's your turn. What's on your list? What books have stayed with you, have shaped your writing life?