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.

James Longenbach on Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee From Me”

The first time I read the poem we call “They Flee From Me” was in the late nineteen-seventies, when I encountered it in a class on Renaissance poetry. This was years before I wrote a poem myself, years before I knew that Wyatt’s early sixteenth-century lyric was also one of George Oppen’s favorite poems; he had recited it silently to himself over and over during World War II, trapped in a foxhole beside two dead companions, as he waited many hours to be rescued: “They flee from me that sometime did me seek / With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.”

My first reading also took place years before I knew that, when Wyatt wrote the poem down, “They Flee From Me” had virtually no punctuation. But Wyatt was no Emily Dickinson, flouting or even ignoring conventions; we English-speakers simply did not use spelling or punctuation with any regularity until the 18th century, and Wyatt’s text is unremarkable. Still, how thrilling it is to read the opening of the last of the poem’s three stanzas as Wyatt punctuated it: “It was no dream I lay broad waking.”

Is that an iambic pentameter line? The gorgeous line before it certainly is, punctuated or not (“And softy said, ‘Dear heart, how like you this?’”), and Wyatt is known as one of the popularizers of that line in English. It might have taken modern ears to hear what Wyatt was doing, but I didn’t think the poet was nodding when I first read “They Flee From Me” more than forty years ago, and I don’t think so now. For whether punctuated (as it usually is) or not—

                It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
                But all is turned thorough my gentleness
                Into a strange fashion of forsaking

—that line stabs the poem with a prosaic flatness hitherto unavailable in “They Flee From Me”; it takes what might otherwise be read as Petrarchan allegory and says this happened, whether it happened or not.

I’ve never much cared if a poem is metered or not, rhymed or not, and I found the twentieth century’s transformation of these formal tools into weapons by and large distracting. All poems live or die in the concerted arrangement of syllables into patterns that are alternatively broken or reinforced. Wyatt taught me that.

Writing Prompt

Whatever else it is, “They Flee From Me” is one of the strangest poems in the English language, despite its being written in the 16th century. Try rewriting it in your own language, the language of twenty-first century America. An example of just this might be found in “Before Time,” from James Longenbach’s Fleet River.

Read Longenbach’s “Before Time” here.

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James Longenbach

James Longenbach is the author of many books of poems and of literary criticism, most recently Earthling and How Poems Get Made, both from W. W. Norton. He is Joseph Gilmore Professor of English at the University of Rochester.