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.

Laura Jaramillo on Lyn Hejinian’s “Gesualdo”

I was at college one summer, stuck with work-study as my only income which meant I couldn’t really do anything and had nowhere air-conditioned to go but the library. The dorm I lived in felt like a stuffy tomb, so every hour that the library was open, I sat there. I took refuge in the library for three months, working my way through the poetry section, reading one slim volume after another and looking out the windows at the heat waving off the asphalt outside. At an intermediary stage of being a younger poet, I sought out experimental women writers obsessively, looking for women’s voices to break open the world. There was an area of the poetry section with one particularly vital constellation of such writers, where I found Lyn Hejinian’s The Cold of Poetry, which contained her 1978 poem “Gesualdo.” It was not the first poem I loved but it was one which reshaped the foundations of what I thought poetry could be—abstract elliptical essay, sensuous discourse on aesthetic form, history, and a strange kind of oblique confession all woven together into a sprawling imagistic song.

“Gesualdo” meditates on the music and life of the late Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who was known for the beauty of his madrigals, secular songs for several voices sung in contrapuntal arrangements without instrumentation. Gesualdo is also infamous for having murdered his wife and her lover, with the composer having become, over the centuries, a stand-in for aristocratic depravity. In the poem, Hejinian considers the exquisite pain in Gesualdo’s songs in contrast to the violence of his actions, “Some time the remainder a master of expression / which has given history complexity in / advance. Yet in this / lies the true. Gesualdo is / famous and a lover. In that year remarkable he / had proved himself in musical style of anything / achieved. It was hard to resist the harsh thrill- / ing pleasure, the greedy harmonies and dissonance, filling the ordinary.” Gesualdo the monster and Gesualdo the master stand side by side, reconciled in the beauty of the music and completely irreconcilable. Throughout the poem, the act of creation is edged with violence and the poet asks for no moral judgments of the reader. 

The poem, composed of different sentences blocked together into prose fragments, mimics the different voices in Gesualdo’s madrigals. Each sentence is a little fragment of a thought or idea next to another little fragment, and together they build into a discontinuous chorus. Hejinian’s writing here is so abstract: it breaks your brain if you try to follow any one narrative or argumentative thread because these threads dissolve themselves even as they announce their own presence. In one such line Hejinian writes, “Because of them basically fragmented / could have believed not a frivolous which softened the see- / ming, one worthy raised of you to need. Necess- / ity was raised.”

As I write this now, I think about how odd it was to become so fixated at nineteen on a poem about a murderous aristocrat as a master of artistic creation, and how I might read the poem differently today if encountering it for the first time. But the baroque magnetism of the poem still remains and I would not renounce it, still. I think this is because Hejinian poses a certain kind of feminist critical practice in “Gesualdo” that never turns away from the story’s ugliness nor from its beauty, as the two are so intertwined. This is a kind of critical/creative practice that I continue to aspire to, no longer being a young writer–a clarity of vision refracted through the extreme moral and aesthetic difficulty of the world. Hejinian performs an unusual kind of ekphrasis here. If ekphrasis traditionally spins a poem out from a work of visual art, the ekphrastic move in “Gesualdo” is to treat all of history and life as a point of departure for ekphrastic improvisation.  In this way, the poem is not apart from the reader, but moves through her as some kind of unsettling synesthetic experience. The ethereal sound of Gesualdo’s madrigals are transmuted into bits of language and image that form a somewhat inscrutable critical text that delivers pleasure upon pleasure, “ardor alternates, love into mourning and ecstasy / into flight.” Years on, “Gesualdo” is the distorted baroque mirror to which I return to gaze again and again.

Writing Prompt

Listen to a series of songs by an artist you love. Walk around in the world listening to it on your headphones for many days until you become intimate with its movements.

When you’re ready to write, play your favorite song of the ones you’ve been listening to in your room loud on a loop. Let it loop for at least one hour.

Pick an essay you like while the music plays in the background. Read the essay out loud. Notice which phrases seem to be in conversation with the music. Cut them up and let them fall to the floor.

Find an old journal or diary. Cut up the pages and pick out the phrases or fragments you like as they fall to the floor.

Arrange the phrases on the floor in ways that rhyme with and amplify the movements of the music. Photograph the tapestry of words you’ve created on the floor.

Transcribe the text into a word processor. Then, put the text away.

Come back to the text a few weeks later and play the song again. Does the poem still resemble the music? Is the music still needing to express itself through this process. If so, continue to rework. Don’t be afraid to braid the day’s events into the text.

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Laura Jaramillo

Laura Jaramillo is a feminist poet and cultural critic. She is the author of several books, including Material Girl (subpress, 2012) and Making Water (Futurepoem, forthcoming fall 2021). Her creative and critical writings have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, the tiny, Jump Cut, and Feminist Media Histories. She lives in Durham, North Carolina where she co-curates the poetry reading series Paradiso at Nightlight Bar and Club.