What Sparks Poetry

The Poems of Others

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In the series The Poems of Others, we’ve invited poets to pay homage to a poem that first sparked poetry in them—a poem they read that gave them permission to write poetry or the idea that they might write it—a poem that led them down the path to becoming a poet.

Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt based on an observation about the poem.

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If I did not take from Larkin his skepticism and lack of faith, I took, and still take, however subsumed, his neo-formal poetic forms, unfussy, concentrated, a modest musical tone playing on half rhymes and perhaps above all, the finely detailed and close, film-like observation of the world around him, physical, natural, and emotional.

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“Salmon,” by Jorie Graham, is one of those poems, miracle-sharp in its vision, that came along at a vital moment and opened up my mind to contemporary poetry: before that, I'd basically only been reading poets who were no longer living, and I suppose I had liked that—the dramatic séance of it all; the sense, a touch thrilling, that only the dead could teach us to live.

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This was a poem about sexual politics of a particular order and one with which I could, by my early thirties, completely relate. Suddenly the last two lines ramified: “a friend suggested she sell it/she’s into that process now.” Maybe this wasn’t a tale about giving away one’s power in order to stay relationally “fit”—maybe this was a tale about deciding to publish, frightened men be damned.

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I loved how the first half of the poem painted a picture by negation, like a puzzle, and how it wrenched me from the cold, lonely reaches of outer space down to the grounded, intimate moment of laying one’s head on a lover’s breast and hearing the quiet of her breathing: all made equally sacred in the poem’s grand equation.

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And so it was there, in my bakery, in one corner of which I had a horrid shaggy green armchair I’d scavenged, that I first chanced upon Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “All Wild Animals Were Once Called Deer” (BAP 1995). What, exactly, was it doing? How did it mean?

All I knew, as I stood in my bakery that night, and the nights that followed, reading and rereading Kelly’s poem, was that I wanted that. In my life. Right now. It was worth changing my life for. That. That was the what that I wanted.

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