Series Reprise

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

In The Poems of Others and The Poems of Others II, we invited our editors and poets from the wider community to pay homage to the poems that led them to write. We asked these poets to write about the poem that first sparked poetry in them—a poem they read that led them down the path to becoming a poet.

In a third series, Life in Public, our editors selected poems addressing aspects of public experience—poems that celebrate, historicize, memorialize, critique, question, or subtly references its public element—and then wrote about what interests and inspires them.

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 The Wilderness (W.W. Norton, 2014) and Loveliest Grotesque (Kore Press, 2006). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, including The Baffler, VOLT, Literary Imagination, jubilat, and The New York Times. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, the Jentel Foundation, and the Getty Research Institute. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.