I like to read other poets, but not all other poets. When I'm in need of inspiration, I go to the public library and leaf through the poetry section books. Margaret Atwood, Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Naomi Nye all provide the fodder I'm interested in this week. I bring them home, open up a book at random, and steal.
Hey, don’t look at me like that. It's not what you think. I read a poem, think on the keywords or the major theme, then use that as a jumping off point for my own poem. My self assignment is to do this with every poem in a book. (Good thing poetry books are usually short) It's a creativity booster when used properly. I force myself to think on the poet's underlying message, on how the poem makes me feel, what words were used for effect and why, and even the title – does it reflect what I read in the poem?
Margaret Atwood has a wonderful poem called, "Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing". I immediately wanted to read more. How could I not with a title like that? It's a poem about how women view the men who look at them with lust and disgust at the same time. Louise Gluck has a poem with the deceptively simple title "Saints". The opening lines gave me a great deal of inspiration for other poems.
In our family, there were two saints,
my aunt and my grandmother.
But their lives were different.
The wheels immediately started turning, and dissecting. Why were these women saints? Why were their lives different? Isn't that true of any mother-daughter combination? Why did her family have saints? Were there any in my family?
My grandmother was cautious, conservative:
that's why she escaped suffering.
My aunt's escaped nothing;
each time the sea retreats, someone she loves is taken away.
From this I get that the way to escape the pain of life is to be cautious and conservative, to keep a closed heart so it doesn't get hurt, because if you are like the aunt, it's all out there on the table, in plain view. The aunt suffers for her openness. When you love without restraint, you get hurt. Gluck makes no judgment at this point, just compares the two women and their ways of suffering. Gluck goes on to complete the poem by speaking of the aunt.
Still she won't experience
the sea as evil. To her, it is what it is:
where it touches land, it must turn to violence.
We can no more change our nature than make the sea stop hammering the shore. It is what it is. A very Buddhist reflection. Acceptance of the way the world exists at this point in time. It brings the poem full circle, because you reflect on the title, Saints. The two women were very different in their approach to living, but each reached the same point at the end. You can be lauded for cautious conservatism or lauded for an open heart, but changing your very nature isn't possible, logical, or desirable. You end up in the same spot.
The poem inspires me to think on the cyclical nature of things, on acceptance, and on family. I chose to write about family, a reoccurring theme. Sometimes little revelations carry far more weight than I believed possible. So thanks, Louise, Margaret, Naomi, Jorie and especially Billy.
"the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry…"
"But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask…"
from The Trouble With Poetry by Billy Collins.