What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In Reprise, we will republish some of the most loved essays from our What Sparks Poetry series. We hope that you will find joy and illumination in revisiting these essays with us.

Sally Keith on Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall”

I was in college in a small school in Central Pennsylvania and must have ended up in the large lecture hall to hear Maya Angelou by accident, if not for an assignment. Poetry wasn’t quite my thing. To this day, I will not forget the sound of Maya Angelou’s voice, the richness of a voice pronouncing words I had already heard, but in a music I had never known. The room around the words was utterly still. The experience sent me off into the stacks to read for myself some of the poems I had heard Angelou read. Rereading I realized I could begin to rehear the music I had heard in person; following the lines, as I read out-loud, I felt my own voice approximate the same sounds. This was thrilling and utterly new. The experience of being surprised by the beautiful dynamism of language, by the sounds of words in the air, is what I carry, how I hope to move on.

Writing Prompt

My prompt is a simple one. Choose a poet you have been recommended or do not know very well. Spend an afternoon reading a selection of the poet’s poems out-loud. Allow that the selection is large enough to contain diverse poems but small enough to hold in your head and read through a number of times. Find two or three favorite poems and then a moment in each poem, the sound of which you love. Could you describe why you like the sound? Are the moments that attract you similar or different? Read the selection again. Now forget about all this and put your attention toward a poem, motivated by sound rather than meaning.

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Sally Keith

Sally Keith

Sally Keith graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop in 2000 and holds a B.A. from Bucknell. She has published four collections of poetry, most recently River House (Milkweed Editions 2015). She has published individual poems in journals and anthologies, including Colorado Review, Conjunctions, New American Writing, and A Public Space. Keith, a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, has been awarded fellowships to the BreadLoaf Writers’ Conference, a Pushcart Prize, and the Denver Quarterly’s Lynda Hull Award. She serves as the editorial co-director, with Peter Streckfus, of Poetry Daily.