The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
John Milton, Paradise Lost
The Riverside Shakespeare
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Abraham H. Lass, How to Prepare for College
Richard Wilhelm & Cary F. Baynes, trans., The I Ching or Book of Changes
Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival
Jacob Needleman, Money and the Meaning of Life
William H. Harlow, Fruit & Twig Key to Trees & Shrubs
Wendy B. Zomlefer, Guide to Flowering Plant Families
Calvert Watkins, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots
Katherine Washburn & John S. Major, eds., World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse
from Antiquity to Our Time
Donald Hall, ed., Claims for Poetry
I think I know, imperfectly, maybe three things from Gary Snyder's "What You Should Know to Be a Poet": "the names of trees and flowers and weeds," "at least one kind of traditional magic," and "work, long dry hours of dull work swallowed and accepted."
As an undergraduate at Columbia, I was influenced by Yeats through a seminar taught by Michael Rosenthal in which I first discovered my interest in poetic technique, rhythm and rhyme, why one word rather than another. "Lapis Lazuli" remains a touchstone for me. For another class I read Paradise Lost, for the first time putting aside my narcissism long enough to wrestle challenging syntax and follow the story line. I return to Shakespeare every couple of years less for the wise comedies and hilariously absurd tragedies than for the ultimate poetic benchmark, a virtuosity of language that has yet to be matched. Kenneth Koch's survey course introduced me to Whitman and Dickinson as well as the moderns Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams and others who I tried to imitate. I still especially love "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "When I Heard At the Close of the Day," "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," "Of Mere Being," "Tract," "This Is Just To Say," "Cino" and "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" but I also need Edward Taylor's "Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children."
In high school, I found Lass' book, full of advice on test-, note- and loan-taking but also containing a list of books that he thought one should read to prepare for college. I spent four years traveling time and space in those novels for which, now that I have little time for fiction, I feel almost homesick: The Admirable Crichton by James Barrie, Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson, Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag, The Last of the Mohicans, The Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, Babbitt, 1984, Ethan Frome, The Good Earth, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Return of the Native, Life on the Mississippi, Cities in Flight, Les Miserables, The Brothers Karamazov, The Golden Notebook, Ulysses. Later I was influenced by the detective novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.
Shortly after college I ghost-wrote Taoist self-help books for a Tai Chi teacher named Da Liu, badly and not to his satisfaction, and I think that's how I was introduced to the I Ching. I read a lot of Chuang-tzu, too. I admit to having thrown coins (and read tarot cards) but less for divination than meditation. "Ta Chuang: The Power of the Great Perseverence brings good fortune. Power depends upon the axle of a big cart. That is truly great power which does not degenerate into mere force but remains inwardly united with the fundamental principles of right and justice. When we understand that greatness and justice must be indissolubly united, we understand the true meaning of all that happens in heaven and on earth. If a man goes on quietly and perseveringly working at the removal of obstacles, success comes in the end. Such a man's power does not show externally, yet it can move heavy loads, like a big cart whose real strength lies in its axle." No magic here, how to live in your community; good advice for nations, too.
I have made my living between two hard anvils, the city and the mountain, neighborhoods and forests. I still reread every five or ten years Jane Jacobs' great analyses of city life and economies: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, culminating in Systems of Survival. I was also influenced by Jacob Needleman's generous, compassionate Money and the Meaning of Life, his concept of the exchange of money as an expression of love and gratitude for services rendered.
I went to forestry school to make sense of the green mass of nature before my eyes. Harlow's Fruit & Twig Key was my first dichotomous key and stands for the many field guides that help me with that task. Lately I've been developing a plant identification database that cross-references about 40 morphological plant characteristics. Wendy Zomlefer's beautiful Guide to Flowering Plant Families is a bit over my head but it is one of many references on which I depend. I can no longer imagine writing poetry without having names for the natural world. Or without access to the genealogy of words through The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. I feel awe for the universe and humanity's place in it reading Scientific American and optimism for peace and global governance reading Foreign Affairs. I like reading poets on their craft, Donald Hall's Claims for Poetry being a favorite collection of such essays.
Over the past five years I have been compiling for my sons (and myself) a personal anthology of poems that are meaningful to me. I call it Whole Wide World and it now contains over 700 poems by about 350 poets. During this time I've read, cover to cover, some 60 poetry anthologies. American and other English-language poetry alone would easily fill the back of Pound's postage stamp but I have been especially grateful to translators for widening my world. Translations from World Poetry and other anthologies are now among the most prominent peaks in my mental landscape: poems by Borges, Brecht, Cardenal, Cavafy, Deschamps, Gustaffson, Hafiz, Zbigniew Herbert, Hikmet, Ibaragi, Itaikkunrurkilar, Jammes, Juarroz, Leopardi, Li Kuang-t'ien, mac Lenini, Paulinaq, Pavese, Rilke, Siamanto, So Chongju, Vallejo, Vidya, and the Top Bard, Anonymous. These and the English-language poets make a community across time and graves. Plants, poems: riches our financial advisor doesn't count. Good and simple a man as he is.
from Poet's Bookshelf II: Contemporary Poets on Books That Shaped Their Art, Peter Davis and Tom Koontz, eds., Barnwood Press, Seattle, 2008.