A lot of people have been blogging lately about reading poetry exstensively, and I have some thoughts to add to the overall conversation.
An admission: I'm definitely not the most well-read poet. I know this about myself. I was not an English major and I mostly avoided taking English classes in college, but I did take creative writing classes. Those creative writing instructors were really the only people who pointed me toward reading certain things. It was in those classes that I first read Frank O'Hara, for example. Fumbling, I would buy and read anthologies, mostly because I was so poor then and wanted the widest exposure possible for the least amount of money.
I'm not the most widely-read poet, but as I read, I tend to read exhaustively instead of expansively. To wit, I've read every poem collected by Frank O'Hara, his juvenilia, his essays on writing and art, the "background" book written by Joe LeSeur about Frank's poems, and the first several chapters of the Gooch biography. When I find a poet I like, I read that poet until there's nothing left to read, and then I try to read about that poet.
Because of this tendency and my own aesthetic biases, I haven't read nearly any of the Romantics, only tangentially from the Moderns, and more liberally from the contemporaries. And pre-Romantic poetry? Well, once I bought a book by Cavafy, but I still haven't read it. I have about 100 books purchased that I mean to read someday.
Is it more beneficial to be widely read or deeply read? Deeply reading one poet, I think, gives me a better picture of how they're doing what they're doing. There's more internalization of work that way, and a broader understanding of career shifts and voice changes. Wide reading has its benefits, and, knowing my reading tendency, I am constantly looking for new people to read. I carry a list in my wallet of books to buy or check out from libraries. I have a new list growing on a post-it based on what I read about in blogs and online interviews or journals. I ask my friends who they are reading, who they recommend. I ask my favorite poets who their favorite poets are.
I don't consider there to be poets I haven't read; only poets that I haven't read yet.
I sometimes get annoyed that there have to be expectations about the poets that "count" toward some greater poet-ness. If I read all of Ron Silliman's work, is that of less value than reading Pound's Cantos? Or, if I decide, for example, that I've read enough white men for a while, that I can choose to explore poetry by women, gay men, etc?
I definitely feel like at this point in my life I'm reading poetry to answer my own questions, not the questions posed by a cultural exam. But I see value in reading as much as possible, which is why, ultimately, I will work on reading the Cantos, why I'll grudgingly reread The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop. Just because I haven't done it yet doesn't mean I won't. It just means that time isn't right for me. When it's time for me to work with those poets, I'll know. The first time I read Louise Glück, I hated her work. I came back to it later and found Meadowlands to be one of my favorite books ever. We arrive at certain poetries at certain times for certain reasons: we find what we need there. And every poet who's on a path is on their own path.