The Poems of Others II

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

In our first series, The Poems of Others, we invited our editors to pay homage to the poems that led them to write. The Poems of Others II is a reprise of that series, opening the invitation to twenty-four poets from among our readers.

We asked these poets to write about the poem, or one of the poems, 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.

Gillian Parrish on Paul Celan’s “In the Daytime”

I’ve long been drawn to small poems—honed, fine-boned, on wing. The leaps and turns, the sudden gaps that unbind the mind for a moment and come to rest for a moment again in deft connection. The way of making a glimpse brim into fullness deep as a dream. How this precision is not machine-like, but more like a berry: life compressed to bursting.

This love for small forms began in my 20s, in Lucille Clifton’s luminous invocations, in Stephen Berg’s translations of Ikkyu’s haiku (rangy couplets!), in Larry Eigner’s Zen sketches. So why not one of those poems? Because Celan’s poem “In the Daytime” is one of the few poems I memorized in adulthood. Because this poem refreshes my mind. Because this poem resists regular thought, is formed from slant logic/dream logic. Because this poem is made of listening. And because it moves beyond the human towards a wild other, a sudden arrival that reminds me that our days are made of change.

 This poem also expands my view of poem-making as a practice of attention to include poem as communion, as something more like prayer. Clearly, Celan’s poem is a poem of attention. Better yet, it is a poem that attends without wanting, that rests in a ready waiting-that-is-not-waiting. For only in such an open space can wildness arrive and minds meet. 

“In the Daytime” opens in openness, starts in the sky, in a mind like a clear eye. But Celan doesn’t just present the world as it seems. He is filtering the day through the sheerest imaginal scrim. He is tilting us into the middle world, reporting sightings, meeting another mind in a timeless time that is today. We begin in a “Hare’s pelt sky,” a live sky, suddenly all lush fur, a breathing body ready to run and take new shapes. 

The poem then places us in a precarious time. (Though are not all times precarious? Especially now.) “Even now,” Michael Hamburger translates the phrase, the “Even” a nod to the fallen world, which Celan, survivor of the Shoah, knew most keenly. This “Even now” not only gestures to loss; the phrase also shifts us into a mode of close attention, with a line break that leaves us on the edge of the “now.” The poem unfolds in the deep time of a thin place, a Noh play-like zone of kami-like arrivals. But this poem doesn’t happen in the traditional times of dreamy betweenness: twilight or midnight or the dark before dawn. Instead, Celan places us “In the Daytime,” re-enchanting the day, a reminder that a deeper life is possible—is happening—here and now.

Some poems carry us beyond our senses to where our senses cross and cross over. Celan makes the invisible visible, extends our senses through the act of writing. English lacks vocabulary for subtle sensing and for the numinous nature of things. We turn to metaphor, which stems from the body, to speak of things that are not things. 

Celan writes, “Even now / a clear wing writes,” a line that reminds me of a migraine’s incandescence before the pain came: patches of a student’s paper and the office wall suddenly shimmering into transparence, into nothing-that-was-not-nothing, but rather visible invisibility. The line points to something like that, like a fishing line pulling pond water, like a heat mirage rising on the road, like a glass jar’s shadow-that-is-light filigreeing the wall—things only visible because they ripple and catch the light. “A clear wing writes,” he says, reminding us that words and forms are evanescent as writing on water, as a bird’s trackless track through the sky. 

The final part of the poem, the appearance of the “dust-coloured” crane, hearkens back to old cultures’ small songs that call forth spirits and messengers: “I too remember / dust- / coloured one, arrived / as a crane.” “As” hints at the world’s dream-like, shapeshifting powers—hints that this life force could have come in other forms. Spurred by this sudden company, the poet shifts from silence into speech, comes into communion with another mind. In the midst of distracted daytimes, skimming surfaces, peering into screens, this poem, itself a shared mind, helps me remember the deeper day, here with us, even now.

Writing Prompt

Celan’s process and poems tend to be dreamlike, hermetic, rooted in his work of surviving terrible losses through language. But we can cultivate something like his receptivity. We can cultivate space/silence as alive and open to wild arrivals that lead us out of solitude, that come to us as old messengers, as new neighbors. What’s one way in?  

First, take a few days to get in the habit of recalling your dreams. Some instructions that work: Set the intention to remember before sleep, as you do when you have an early morning flight. You can set an alarm ahead of your regular alarm and record dream scraps in that half-awake gap. Keep an audio recorder/notepad by the bedside.

Once this dream remembering is underway, decide on a conducive place that you can go sit outside, somewhere open to others, but where you can sit quiet-minded, listening. Bring your dream lines there. 

Once settled there, breathe in. Breathe out—letting the breath mingle with the air around you. 

Turn outwards. Let yourself forget yourself for a moment: Let yourself be an opening. 

Jot a line that is a vivid glimpse of the outer world. (Mica glints in the pavement, gasoline fumes, the shell-colored sky.)

Next, turn towards your core—throat, heart, gut. Jot a line that includes a glimpse of your inner world. (Bodily sensations, or an image or phrase floating up from your core that feels honest, true.)

In whatever order the lines lead you, weave a small poem from these three threads of the outer waking world, the inner waking world, and the dream that lives between.

And if you want to follow Celan’s poem–and his overall dialogic/I-thou poetry–more closely, you could add a line of address. Perhaps yours will be a sharing, as Celan does, or perhaps a wishing, or a calling out or being called to, or a simple nod to something that arrives. This “thou” could be sentient or not; just find what woke you up to the moment: bus brake,  dog bark, gun shot, bird call, tree shadow on the sidewalk, the rain starting to fall.

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Gillian Parrish

Gillian Parrish is the author of two books of poems: of rain and nettles wove (Singing Horse Press, 2018) and supermoon (Singing Horse Press, 2020), which was written in a similar mode as the writing prompt above. A chapbook, cold spell, is just out from DUSIE Kollektiv, and her poems, essays, and fiction appear in journals including Volt, Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Newfound and as well as in anthologies from Black Lawrence Press and Wesleyan University Press. She has contributed articles on teaching for Faculty Focus and serves as an assistant professor in the MFA in Writing program at Lindenwood University in St. Louis. More at: https://spacecraftproject.com/mothership/