The Poems of Others

In her essay “The Holograph,” poet Brenda Hillman speaks of handwriting a poem over and over as a method of revision in her own practice:

Emerging signs are very close to the nerves of the hand. Seeing a letter formed in stages… pulled into the thread or wick, to the thing of the word itself, gives a sense of participatory process, that the poem is still unfolding, that all of its unconscious dream nature has not yet been foreclosed upon.…

Hillman writes too about our “atavistic connections to the written expression.” Thinking about that “atavistic” quality, that reversion to the ancestral, Poetry Daily asked each member of its new editorial board to name the poem that first sparked poetry in them—the first poem they read that gave them permission to write poetry or the idea that they might write it—the poem that led them down the path to becoming a poet.

We then asked each editor to write about that special experience and to create a writing prompt for others based on an observation about the poem. We also asked them, finally, to handwrite that poem—as a kind of homage to its maker, the poet who came before—and an homage to the poem itself as a thing that first sparked their writing.

“I also like to recopy poems other than my own onto new pages,” Hillman observes in conclusion to her essay, “because there is an intimacy about that as well.”

We are excited to present to you these sixteen intimate homages to the relationship between poet as reader and poet as writer, and to what sparks poetry.

Aaron McCollough on William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say”

I found books intimidating as a kid. All books. The words inside them, of course. Poetic words were especially daunting. But I do remember being impressed at some point by the poems my peers published in the school literary magazine—impressed less by the poems themselves than by the fact that people my age (13?) believed they could write poems. Noticing that feeling must have primed me in some way to consider the possibility of writing poems for myself. In some ways, I think I wrote my first few poems or lines of poetry just as an adolescent experiment in identity. I didn’t really have any frame of reference for what poems were, but I knew that some people thought they had value. Did I think so? And if I did, could I find a preferable self there in Poetry? The answer continued to be “no” for some time, as my early exposure in the classroom to “real” poems confirmed suspicions that literary language was not about any life I could smell, taste, or otherwise imagine and therefore must not be about me. I slowly came around to Shakespeare and to some novels, but all verse felt kind of like what Alexander Pope still feels like: elevated for unfathomable reasons, filled with rhymes like “clos’d / compos’d” and “adorn’d / mourn’d.”

I persisted in writing poems, nevertheless, for reasons I can’t quite articulate now, but I don’t think I really felt “permission” or saw a true point of egress until I read William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say,” and I still remember that moment vividly. My English teacher told the class to flip through the Norton Anthology and find a poem that we liked. Then, he went around the room and had us explain what we thought the poem was about and why we liked it. Typically, I would have hated that sort of task, but I stumbled on the poem as if I’d stumbled into Williams’s actual kitchen. The poem’s mundanity seemed all wrong to my notion of literary propriety, but in that mild transgression—in the context of this poem that I found curiously moving—I could feel those faulty notions getting annulled. At the time, I was impressed by the spareness of the language, what I took to be the naturalness of the voice, and the documentary feeling of calling a refrigerator note a poem. But more than any of that, I was haunted by something being transacted in the poem that was harder to describe. Now, I think I’d call it the melancholy tone and the work that tone is doing to communicate something about love, absence, connection, and isolation. The poem is ultimately more about what isn’t there (the plums, the speaker, respect for the beloved’s property) than it is about what was there momentarily (the sensual pleasure of something “so sweet / and so cold” or the speaker’s remorse, however genuine). All that is really left is a way of speaking about what is passing and what has passed, about the limits of our ability to share the world even with those we love the most, dashed off with a perfunctory “just.”

How much of this—the very subtle irony of the poem’s humility, for example—was available to me in that first reading is hard to account for, but basically, I’ve never stopped thinking about this poem and the depth of the feelings and questions it prompted in me—the little vision it opened up for me. The poem gave me permission to look at poetry as an instrument for touching elements of life that I intuitively knew were there (or palpably missing) between the details of commonplace experience and just below the phenomenal clamor—a lease I’m still exploring.

Writing Prompt

Write a note to someone or something you love (whether that’s a person or an animal or an idea, living, dead, or indifferent). Try to fill the note with feeling but also try to situate the note in a context (whether that’s a situation or a moment, a passing thought or an ongoing routine).

Once the note is complete, try removing all the nouns. What’s missing? Try to write that down. OK, replace the nouns and remove all the modifiers. Now what’s missing? Try to write that down, too.

Now write a poem to the someone or something you love, using your notes on what was missing from your initial note.

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Aaron Mccollough

Aaron McCollough

Aaron McCollough is the author of six books of poetry. Most recently, Rank was published by the University of Iowa Press. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, A Public Space, Denver Quarterly, Fence, VOLT, and jubilat. With Karla Kelsey, he co-edits SplitLevel Texts. He is director of George Mason University Press and Mason Publishing (in Mason Libraries) and production director of Poetry Daily. More at http://aaronmccollough.com/.