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.

J. Michael Martinez on Rainer Maria Rilke’s “[You who never arrived]”

I encountered Rilke as a fourteen year old; I was in my local library and someone had put Letters to a Young Poet on display on a bookshelf.  I picked it up and its discussion on the intensity of the poetic—on vocation, on the work of the poem as a site of self-transcendence—all activated my passions and imagination.  I immediately checked-out Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rilke’s poetry.  The poem “[You who never arrived]” mirrored so much of the desires I was then living through: adolescent hope and longing, the ubiquitous resonance of love as its images refract through history into the phenomenal world (a store window, a bird song). Rilke’s unpublished missive to a distant beloved became an archetype for much of my sense of the poetic: an epistle (in)to the unknown fueled by a compassion that comprehends radical otherness as an aspect of the self exceeding the self, the “self” as a species of metaphor where each bodied self is comprehended as democracy in a post-human love—echoing through us “yesterday, separate, in the evening…” 

Writing Prompt

Remember someone you once had romantic feelings for but never told, a desire left unrequited: recall the pressure of that desire, how the mind would construct a world out of your projections. Go for a long walk and, as you meander, wander through that longing, reflecting on what that desire took from you and the remainder that was left. Recall the particular objects and colors from those projections. Write down what you see on your walk that prompts insights and memories.  After your walk, look at your written reflections and upon your thoughts and risk confessing what this desire represents of this historical self. What has changed? What hasn’t? What echoes out from under this trajectory?

Use these notes and write a pantoum that begins with “You who never arrived…”.  Remember, a pantoum may be of any length; however, it is written in quatrains and the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza.

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J. Michael Martinez

J. Michael Martinez

Longlisted for the National Book Award, winner of the National Poetry Series, and a recipient of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, J. Michael Martinez is the author of four collections of poetry, Heredities (LSU Press), In the Garden of the Bridehouse (University of Arizona Press), and Museum of the Americas (Penguin Press), and, forthcoming from Penguin, a new collection, Tarta Americana. An assistant professor of poetry at San Jose State University’s MFA in Creative Writing, he lives in California. More at www.jmichaelmartinez.org.