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.

Amaud Jamaul Johnson on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “A Lovely Love”

           —“Definitionless in this strict atmosphere”

I was twenty and an undergraduate at Howard University, taking Dr. Jon Woodson’s Survey of African American Poetry. He was suspicious of labels and spent the first weeks of class arguing against his own course title. His first lecture began with a summary dismissal of Maya Angelou, who a year earlier was Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Poet. He would hand out poems with the authors’ names blacked out, and ask: “What makes this a Black poem, or is this good or bad?” We had to defend our answers. Our shortcomings were immediately evident. This is how I was introduced to Gwendolyn Brooks’s “A Lovely Love.”

At first blush, I was equally confused and excited. It’s a sonnet! Case closed. But the rhyme scheme is off, and it has both a volta and a parting couplet, elements of Petrarchan and Elizabethan sonnet traditions. It’s a hybrid, a fused form, it dances between two worlds, two traditions. Part Montague, part Capulet. It breaks rules without abandoning them. I knew I was in over my head. I felt the way a child feels when in the middle of a “grown folks” conversation. I also noticed the music: the anaphora, alliteration, assonance, and end rhyme. If I struggled with the structure, I was doubly confused about the subject. The love here is born of The Blues Tradition. It’s full of pleasure and pain. Its speaker has a devil-may-care attitude: “Let it be…Let it be.” The circumstances are not ideal, but these lovers can’t control their environment. This is a dark sweetness: “caverned kindness,” “hyacinths,” “halls,” and “alleys,” where the body is “scraped” and “honed” and “shocked.” Yes, it’s dangerous and desperate, but I can hear Bessie Smith, Shirley Murdock, or Rick James and Teena Marie’s “Fire and Desire.”

The “Other” love, “lit by a fondling star,” condoned “by wise men,” while Divine, while Immaculate, is sexless. Brooks is praying at a different altar. This poem is my Rosetta Stone, how I learned the significance of unity of purpose in poetry. It’s perfectly messy. If Blackness is anything, it’s equal parts an act of self-love and a form of resistance.

Writing Prompt

Act Tacky!

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Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Amaud Jamaul Johnson is author of two poetry collections, Darktown Follies and Red Summer. His honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, the Dorset Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Edna Muendt Poetry Award, and a Pushcart Prize. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Kenyon Review, Best American Poetry, the Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, Harvard Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. More at https://amaudjamauljohnson.com/.