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.

Cynthia Arrieu-King on Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Man Watching”

I grew up in an old Jewish neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. It was full of deciduous trees and columned homes from the 40’s. It wasn’t suburban but it wasn’t the center of town and everyone had pretty landscaping. I had a friend two grades older who made a mixed tape for me with Faith No More, Public Enemy, Dead Can Dance, and other great music from the era on it. It had a little bit of German poetry on it from the beginning of Der Himmel Uber Berlin/Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders (“Lied Vom Kindheit” by Peter Handke). It had a word glued to the spine of the label insert: self-conscious. I’m sure that was for me to ponder. She went on to art school, and we started a correspondence. One day I got a letter from her and tore it open and sat on the front steps of my childhood house. On its pages, she’d sketched in black felt tip the silhouette of a man she had been dating and talked about how sculpture students were wild. And she included the poem “The Man Watching,” by Rainer Maria Rilke. As I sat on the brick stoop reading the words, I felt a strange certainty, as if I were falling. I was hearing someone actually articulate a space for uncertainty, melancholy, and suffering that sounded current, electric. This kind of thinking is what I wanted. I had always wanted to see behind the look of things. Religion in all its specificity wasn’t it. Philosophy and axioms by Confucius were not it. How could people so misunderstand each other and the ways of the world? And here this man was ok with that. I wanted to see certain scales in tandem, disconnected worlds colliding, time unraveling, the daily and the cosmic together. That day, I went to the bookstore and bought a Rilke book. And a few days later a Simic book. Satan Says by Olds. And so on. For my whole life.

Writing Prompt

Describe a small troubling feeling or situation. Create a turn in the poem and address the bigger force that it hides or distracts one from.

— Cynthia Arrieu-King

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Cynthia Arrieu-King

Cynthia Arrieu-King grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Her books of poetry include People are Tiny in Paintings of China (Octopus Books 2010), Manifest, winner of the Gatewood Prize selected by Harryette Mullen (Switchback Books 2013), and Futureless Languages (Radiator Press 2018). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Bomb Magazine, jubilat, The Georgia Review, and others. She is a former Kundiman fellow and through Poetry Out Loud and the Dodge Foundation leads workshops for educators on poetry appreciation and pedagogies.