Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
The most influential American poet, beyond question. He was our first memoirist, our earliest Oprah (himself his only guest), our great prophet of the self. You can lay a lot of dreck at Whitman’s door, but his spirit is so large, his voice still so vital, that it’s impossible to think of him as anything but a powerful positive influence. No poet ever worked harder to project himself into the future, and no poet has ever been more successful. Many quintessentially American qualities—individualism, optimism, pluralism—find their best expression in Whitman’s poetry, and even those of us who have never read him are influenced by him.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
He wrenched poetry into the twentieth century and gave an entire era a language for its anxieties. His influence is on the wane among poets, or at least in a lull, which is unfortunate. Eliot’s work remains a great model for how to root real innovation and experimentation in a living tradition. It is also a reminder of the enduring pleasures of sound in poetry. But Eliot can’t vanish; his work, like Whitman’s, has entered the culture. We read him even when we don’t.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Williams thought Eliot was a disaster for American poetry and publicly attacked “The Waste Land.” He lost that battle but won the war. The next time you read a contemporary poem that is dominated by simple visual description, devoid of rhyme or meter, and suspiciously close to a basic prose paragraph broken up into lines, you are tasting the fruit of Williams’s influence. A good poet (though not a great one), Williams isn’t responsible for the blight of bad poetry that has followed him—but it’s hard not to blame him just a little.
Wallace Stevens (1879–1955)
As poetry retreated into the academy, Stevens emerged as the dominant figure of the twentieth century. His influence is at once very deep and very narrow. Scholars and poets know his work inside out, but many educated people haven’t even heard of him. The poems are dense, highly wrought, and full of otherworldly beauty—a necessary corrective to the Williams-esque plain style. But his work also has a hothouse, overintellectualized quality, which has endeared it to the academy and which contemporary poets would do well to purge.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Plath was Robert Lowell’s student. Her achievement, though astonishing for someone who died at thirty, is not comparable to his, but for the past fifty years her work has had more influence. She’s been a feminist icon, the high priestess of Confessionalism, and the required graveside reading for millions of undergraduate existentialists. Her overall influence has been terrible, promoting a kind of narcissistic despair that persists in many poems, novels, and movies today. That her work has survived all this ancillary frenzy, that it remains strange and original and troubling, is a testament to how good it really is.