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.

Jenny Browne on Jane Mead’s “The Lord and The General Din of the World”

I first read Jane Mead’s poem “The Lord and The General Din of the World” early in 1997 while sitting on the floor inside BookWoman, Austin, Texas’s iconic feminist bookstore. It’s the title poem in Mead’s first full collection, and I recall the title being what caught my attention, and even more specifically, the word and.

“The kids are shrieking at the edge of the pool, their angelic faces twisting.” The poem opens via a series of inductive images that are by turn violent, mundane, searching and tender, arguing via conjunction that all of this is happening at once.

At least that’s how it felt. It’s true that I was already a little disoriented. I’d been on the road for days, driving a wood-paneled Buick Electra station wagon named Old Smokey down from Indiana to Texas for a job I didn’t really want. Because I really wanted to be a poet, although I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. My belongings filled the car, and when one of the bookstore employees glimpsed me brushing my teeth in the parking lot, she came out and tapped on the window, gently offering to let me use their bathroom. I likely appeared homeless and my in-between state also felt somehow part of the poem.

“And under all this now a steady grating—a plastic body of blue cheese dressing / scraping up against the concrete gutter, / bobbing off the aqua, sun-flicked waves / the kids have made by jumping.” Reading these lines again, decades later, I can’t help thinking of Rilke’s famous charge, “…for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your / life.”

Can a description of an empty bottle of blue cheese dressing change your life? I wouldn’t have wagered it, but I never forgot that “steady grating” and how Mead’s poem pointed the way forward. Because I didn’t know you could put stuff like that in a poem, by which I mean the stuff my actual life felt made of, let alone hold it right next to God, whoever she was. I had thought being a poet meant I had to learn to write (and see) like Rilke, but now I thought maybe I might try to be (and listen) like Jane Mead. Her contra-dictions thrilled me while the rising and falling of lines into sentence steadied.

“And there’s a man here from Afghanistan / who hasn’t cut his greasy hair since he was driven mad. / His name is Simon. He looks just like The Christ. / Walks up and down beside the pool, oblivious / to screams and parking. He gestures as he talks, / whispers and pontificates. / No one is listening.”

But I was listening, and I listened even closer as the poem’s response to the and-ness of it all turned not ironic or postmodern but rather to its knees in prayer as the speaker seemed to become at once the ranting man and the dirty water and ephemeral light and one final scrap of pure song: “What holds me here destroys me as I go.”

We lost Jane Mead’s wholly original voice and vision this September and I am still listening.

Writing Prompt

Using Mead’s title as a spark, consider a binary that interests, or better yet, troubles you. (e.g. sacred/profane, mercy/cruelty, natural/artificial etc.) First draft a list of at least ten specific images, phrases, ideas, and memories that you associate with each side. When you are finished, pick one item from each list and link them together with the word and. This is your title. Using the other material from your lists, or not, write the poem.

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Jenny Browne

Jenny Browne is the author of three collections of poems, At Once (2004), The Second Reason (2007), and Dear Stranger (2014), two chapbooks Welcome to Freetown (2015) and Texas, Being (2016), and the forthcoming New and Selected Poems, Volume 17 in the Texas Poet Laureate Series from TCU Press. A former James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas in Austin, she is currently Associate Professor of English at Trinity University. She has received the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and two creative writing fellowships from the Texas Writers League. New poems have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in Bennington Review, Copper Nickel, Oxford American and The Nation. In Spring 2020, she will be the UK Distinguished Fulbright Scholar in Creative Writing at Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. www.jennybrowne.com