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 Rilke’s unpublished missive to a distant beloved became an archetype for much of my sense of the poetic: an epistle (in)to the unknown fueled by a compassion that comprehends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…”
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.
J. Michael Martinez on Rainer Maria Rilke’s “[You who never arrived]”
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.
J. Michael Martinez
Longlisted for the National Book Award, selected for 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 three collections of poetry. He is a Poetry Editor of Noemi Press and his writings have been anthologized in Ahsahta Press’ The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, Rescue Press’ The New Census: 40 American Poets, and Counterpath Press’ Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing. Visiting Assistant Professor of Poetry at St. Lawrence University, J. Michael lives in upstate NY. More at www.jmichaelmartinez.org.