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.

David Blair on W. H. Auden’s “Petition”

I found “Petition” by W.H. Auden in a thrift shop paperback anthology from the fifties.

I loved the way the second line complicated the first line, though I did not completely get the entire shebang as a continuous statement. “Sir, no man’s enemy, forgiving all/ But will his negative inversion, be prodigal.” But I trusted obscurity, the switcheroo in point-of-view from talking-to-you, Sir, to talking about you later in the sentence in the third person. Athlete. The English comma seemed more about attitude than grammar. Will you wear that shirt, Lord? Will you be prodigal, though inverted? And what on earth was a “negative inversion”? Isn’t that maybe good? No living teenager wants to have “ingrown virginity.” Painful toenails. The Smiths.

Naturally, I enjoyed the subtle rhymes so much that I did not even notice them, nor the poem’s sonnet form, a perfect spell working on my barely conscious mind because here, in the last line and a half of the poem, was a sentiment so sudden that I could, without embarrassment, sport around with it typed and taped to my binder on a strip of paper, a fortune cookie fortune, a restaurant’s first dollar: “look shining at/ New styles of architecture, a change of heart.”

The sound of distant eloquence is its own charm. Today my favorite line is “Prohibit sharply the rehearsed response.” Those days in Pittsburgh, I could walk a mile or two to see a big sooty dark neo-gothic skyscraper on the Pitt campus, nicknamed the Tower of Ignorance. Or I could take the bus downtown and see the giant castle made of mirrors, the brand-new, postmodern PPG Place, a building that mirrors and distorts the local landmark that inspired it, always looking to shine, even in the rain.

Writing Prompt

Make a list of the imperative or command forms of verbs. All of the sentences in your poem should be commands, but all of the sentences should be more than one line long, and none of the sentences should be the same number of lines. Keep this up until you have a fourteen-line or a fifteen-line or a thirteen-line poem. Throughout your poem, you are asking a specific but normal person to be lordly, but try not to sound desperate or ask for obvious things, but remember that you are kind of lordly yourself. Unplanned rhymes preferred.

— David Blair

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David Blair

David Blair is a visiting writer in the MFA Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire. He is the author of four collections of poetry and a collection of essays: Barbarian Seasons, Walk Around: Essays on Poetry and Place (MadHat Press), Arsonville (New Issues Poetry and Prose), Friends with Dogs (Sheep Meadow Press), and Ascension Days (Del Sol Press).