The Poems of Others

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

In the series The Poems of Others, we’ve invited poets to pay homage to a poem 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.

Teri Ellen Cross Davis on Lucille Clifton’s “study the masters”

My grandmother, Katie Mae, left Pine Bluff, Arkansas in the 1960’s, following two of her sisters (Lola Mae and Betty) up north to Cleveland, Ohio. She brought with her two of her children, my mother and uncle. With or without advanced education, opportunities in Northern Ohio for Black women were limited. Katie Mae and Lola Mae found jobs as domestics in hotel chains, occasionally picking up extra work cleaning the homes of wealthy white people.

Katie’s daughter, Burnetta, became head cheerleader at John F. Kennedy High School and met my father, Raymond, who ran cross country and track. The high school sweethearts were poetry lovers and made sure books of all kinds lined the bookshelves in their home. In fact, Burnetta loved poetry so much she taught me, her daughter, how to read using the work of Nikki Giovanni. I knew poets dreamed of cotton clouds on rainy days but, in all the poems I was assigned—from grade school to college—I never encountered Black women who worked as domestics. These women were not only domestics but they were given agency and authority; centered and real.

In “study the masters,” I immediately see “aunt timmie” as my grandmother, as my great aunt ironing the master poet’s linen. I love how “he” is not what the poem is about—“he” is a consequence, a step on the ladder to “aunt timmie.” In fact, it is “aunt timmie” who is centered at the beginning of the poem; her invisible labor made visible drives the poem. America is the result of that labor, the last word.

Exaltation and praise is fertile land in poetry. To be the subject of a poem means a person, moment, or thing is significant to the poet, so they in turn write lines worthy enough to be called poetry, lifting up that beauty, finding its truth. In the lines, “if you had heard her/chanting as she ironed/you would understand form and line/and discipline and order and/america” is that truth: America could not be America without the labor of Black women. While wealthy white families made their millions and put their names on buildings, their homes were cleaned by Ms. Katie Mae, Ms. Lola Mae, by domestics, Black or brown women, who had dreams like owning a home, sending a child to a better school. They chanted their words of hope and Lucille Clifton heard them and claimed those women. She elevates and honors them with “study the masters.”

By writing a poem so full of respect for her “aunt timmie,” master of ironing, Lucille Clifton opens a door to other possibilities. What can I do? Who do I love and want to see in a poem? There is power in that question. There is power in the answer.

Writing Prompt

Who do you love and want to see in a poem? It can be found or born family, it can be an act that touched you and you want to elevate that act. Find that moment, that loved one, and write about them, bring forth the beauty in them that you want others to see.

— Teri Ellen Cross Davis

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Teri Ellen Cross Davis

Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of a more perfect Union, awarded the 2019 Journal/Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize and Haint, awarded the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. She is the winner of the Poetry Society of America’s 2020 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award. Her work has appeared in print, online, and in many journals and anthologies including: Academy of American Poets, Harvard Review, PANK, Poetry Ireland Review, and Kenyon Review. She has received fellowships and scholarships to Cave Canem, Hedgebrook, and more. She is the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series Artistic Curator and Poetry Programs Manager for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.