July 9, 2013

Prompt: First (Poetic) Love



Who is the first poet you fell in love with? In this video from The Poetry Foundation, Edward Hirsch, Evie Shockley, Jean Valentine, Juan Felipe Herrera, Katy Lederer, Marilyn Hacker, Pierre Joris and Rachel Levitsky talk about first poetry loves.

Several of the poets ask the interviewer if the question is meant literally or figuratively, or if the answer can be a poem rather than the poet. This inspired me use that first love of poetry as our prompt and inspiration.

Who is the poet that was your first love? This might be the love of a poem, but it might be a crush on the poet, either by way of a poem or just a photo on a book jacket or an encounter at a reading.

Emily, as she appears on "her" Twitter page


I had an adolescent crush on plain old Emily Dickinson because I felt sorry for her and imagined that if I had been there in Amherst that I might have been friends with her. I would have gotten her outside into nature and maybe we would have even dated.I also had a crush on glamorous Marilyn Monroe at that time because I also wanted to save her from the world.

In “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” Billy Collins takes that idea to a playful extreme. His poem is an extended metaphor for reading a Dickinson poem. The undressing is also the uncovering of the poems. FOr example, taking off her "tippet made of tulle” is like opening her book.

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

Emily's simple poems are "a more complicated matter" when you actually read them. They are not so easy.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.


Emily's habit was to wear a white dress, although she rarely left her family home in Amherst. She was a recluse for the latter part of her life, hiding behind the door when there were visitors. It is assumed that she died a virgin. You can hear Billy Collins read this poem and some of Emily's poetry online and Collins says that "There are many speculations about her...Was she lesbian? Was she celibate? Did she have an affair?" All of that speculation inspired him to write the poem in which he wanted, in a playful way, to put the guessing to rest by undressing her and having sex.

Naomi Shihab Nye
The first time I heard a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye it was her reading "Making a Fist" at a Dodge Poetry Festival. I loved the poem and I had a bit of a crush on the poet too. I bought two of her books because I wanted to read them, but also because I wanted to go up to her and ask her to sign them and say something to her.

In another video, Naomi Shihab Nye talks about how poetry inspires us. She says, "I've carried, for perhaps 30 years, a very tattered piece of notebook paper that says: Philip Levine has described the muse as 'being the portion of the self that largely lives asleep. Being inspired is really being totally alive.' He says that such a state feels a 'little odd' and also 'delicious.' " She also carries with her William Stafford's poem, "The Sky."

Despite my Emily and Naomi crushes, the poem I carry in my wallet is "When You Are Old" by William Butler Yeats. That was one I fell in love with in high school and that I memorized and that reads even better to me as I grow old and gray and full of sleep myself.

For this month's writing prompt, we write about First (Poetic) Love. This can mean the first poem you recall loving or the first poet you loved (in any sense of the word).

Submission Deadline: Wednesday, July 31st




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