|white on white, on Flickr by Ken Ronkowitz|
I was paging through an anthology of poems looking for inspiration this past weekend. Sometimes, anthologies will index poems by author, title and first lines. I noticed little groupings in the titles and first lines - ones that a number of authors have used.
A poem that I memorized for a class many years ago was in such a group of "when" poems. "When You are Old" by William Butler Yeats is a poem I have loved for a long time. I imagine it as a great dedication for a book of poems - a book to be picked up by the woman who inspired the poems many years later.
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Another poem in the group is also an old favorite:
"When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be" by John Keats
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.
And that led me to another poem from the period - a poem sometimes titled "Song" or just known for its first line "When I am dead, my dearest" by Christina Rossetti
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
Sometimes, the simplest prompt can set you to writing. I attended a poetry retreat this month and the two poets leading us, Maria Gillan and Laura Boss, hit you with a shotgun blast of prompts. They might give a half dozen suggestions or opening lines and people write for twenty minutes and return with some unbelievably good first drafts that use one or a combination of those prompts, or start with one and turn unexpectedly in another direction.
And that's all we should expect from a prompt - a little push to set our boat into the water.
For this month's prompt, as an opening line, begin with "When you" or "When I" and start paddling. You might choose to use use both openings for different lines or stanzas or blend the two into "When you and I."
There are plenty of modern poems that use that opening too. Listen to "When You're Lost in Juarez in the Rain and It's Easter Time Too" by Charles Wright which starts with that title which is tangled up in some lines by Bob Dylan.
In "When I Am in the Kitchen" by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, she uses the line as her title and moves on like this:
I think about the past. I empty the ice-cube traysSubmission deadline: Sunday, January 19, 2013
crack crack cracking like bones, and I think
of decades of ice cubes and of John Cheever,
of Anne Sexton making cocktails, of decades
of cocktail parties, and it feels suddenly far
too lonely at my counter...