The Poems of Others

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.

Sandra Lim on Emily Dickinson’s “[Water is taught by thirst.]”

I took an introductory poetry writing class in my sophomore year of college because my schedule allowed it; I had mostly downed novels up until then. We were not assigned this Dickinson poem in class, and I can’t remember exactly how I came upon it.

I was familiar with many of her famous poems, but something about “[Water is taught by thirst.]” made me feel both wonderfully repaired (from what? why?) and restive. I don’t think it consciously occurred to me as an invitation to write poems, but something was put into motion.

When I first read it, the last line struck me as mysterious, rich, and strange: I did a double-take. After she lulls us into a pattern with her list of great human needs, Dickinson leaves us with an enchanted image and explodes the notion of dichotomy even as she serves it up.

Now, experiences I have had in my life contaminate the poem—but I don’t mean that in a sinister way. It’s just that I see more clearly how the poem deftly admits the allusive and acausal (in life! in art!). It pushes language to do what it can, and not only as well-meaning intercession.

Writing Prompt

Ask yourself a question and answer it several times. Generate structural energy in the answering lines by using a pattern of syntactical repetition. Ask yourself if the poem formally asserts something that the content might dispute, or vice-versa.

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Sandra Lim

Sandra Lim

Sandra Lim is the author of two poetry collections, Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006) and The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014), which won the 2013 Barnard Women Poets Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Baffler, jubilat, The New York Times, Poetry, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. Her honors include a 2020 Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Levis Reading Prize, and grants from MacDowell, The Vermont Studio Center, and The Getty Foundation. Born in Seoul, Korea, she is an Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and lives in Cambridge, MA.