Truly inspiring poems have the power to lift you up, spark your emotions, and really make you think. I've always turned to poetry for inspiration, not just when I'm happy, angry, or depressed, but also when I'm in need of inspiration to write. Good writers, whether they're poets or novelists, make me want to write better. So when I need a jolt, I'll turn to Janet Fitch, Thomas Harris, Jeff Lindsay, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and similar writers – or I'll read over these inspiring poems that always make me want to write. (I apologize in advance for all the T. S. Eliot; he's my favorite.)
1. “Howl” – Allen Ginsberg
“Howl” is one of the most inspiring poems I've ever read. It touches me on a deeply personal level, because I first read it in high school as I struggled with my own sexual identity. However, it also touches me as a writer. Allen Ginsberg wrote with raw, wide open emotions. He didn't censor himself on any subject and because of his honesty, he found beauty in even the bluest language. He made lust and sexuality and violence and cynicism beautiful – and just reading this poem makes me want to write with that kind of passion.
2. “Braggart” – Dorothy Parker
Sometimes I write because I need to vent. I write to deal with anger, frustration, or some kind of unhappiness. Sometimes I write to deal with feelings I have toward another person – and I'm talking here about negative feelings. Dorothy Parker, she of the acid tongue and the poisoned pen, often helps me with that. She wrote reams of beautiful, heartbreaking poetry, but I often turn to “Braggart” for inspiration because it's just such a fantastic burn. “Like January weather,/ The years will bite and smart,/ And pull your bones together/ To wrap your chattering heart.”
3. “Lady Lazarus” – Sylvia Plath
There is not a single poem written by Sylvia Plath that I do not love, but “Lady Lazarus” is easily my favorite. When I'm rebelling against, oh, say, the Bella Swans and the Sookie Stackhouses of the literary world, and channeling a strong female character, I need to feel strong myself. This poem is full of tragic, powerful symbolism, but it's also a testament to strength. When I was younger, I considered the very last stanza my anthem and it always inspired me: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”
4. “the Waste Land” – T. S. Eliot
Initially I had three of Eliot's poems on this list, but I restrained myself and worked it down to only two. This is the first, and I could read it over and over again. I frequently do, in fact. As I mentioned, T. S. Eliot is my favorite poet, and this is my second favorite poem – not just of Eliot's, but in general. The language, the symbolism, the rhythm – it all inspires me to be this kind of writer. I covet Eliot's gift with language, his turn of phrase. Eliot told stories with his poetry, and he did not worry about how long it took him because he knew that the journey was half the fun. And I want to be a writer like that.
5. “This Be the Verse” – Philip Larkin
Philip Larkin was a wonderful, crass, raunchy poet. I was introduced to him in college, and I immediately fell head over heels. In addition to being an anthem for irate, sullen teens everywhere, “This Be the Verse” in particular taught me that sometimes economy of language is the best way to go. You don't need pages and pages to tell a story. Use the right phrasing, and a short story is just as meaningful as a novel.
6. “Pursuit” – Stephen Dobyns
"Each thing I do I rush through so I can do/ something else. In such a way do the days pass..." I won't lie. Stephen King's Insomnia introduced me to Stephen Dobyns, and this is the poem that did it. I've since read all of his poetry, and loved it all, but this one stuck with me. It inspires in me the realization that it is possible, as a writer, to capture a reader with just one sentence, one stanza. And it also inspires me to stop rushing; the ideas will come if I'm patient.
7. “Paranoid: a Chant” – Stephen King
Stephen King is not known for his poetry, of course, yet his poetry is surprisingly fantastic. I first read this years ago, when reading one of King's short story collections, Skeleton Crew. I thought it was marvelous, really marvelous. I loved the pacing, the repetition, the flow of the language. It inspires me to always step outside of my comfort zone, because even if the whole world thinks you're just a horror writer, you can surprise everyone with a truly amazing piece of poetry.
8. “the Hollow Men” – T. S. Eliot
Here, of course, is the second Eliot poem. I first included “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as well, so if you're not familiar with it, please read it. “The Hollow Men,” however, is my favorite poem ever – ever. I love every line, every stanza, every part. I could share dozens of quotes with you, but I'd end up quoting the entire poem. Why does this one inspire me? The language, the imagery, the rhythm, absolutely – but the ending, too. Here Eliot inspires me to always leave them with a bang – or a whimper. He inspires me, if you will, to leave them trembling with tenderness.
You can read whenever you need inspiration, whether you need something that will make you smile, cry, get angry, nurse a broken heart, or get up off your butt and do what you love to do. These are the poems that make my imagination come to life; they make me want to become a better writer. What poems or books inspire you, and what do they make you want to do?