Week Two: Finding Your Poetry Family

This week is about starting to become more conscious of the writers who have already influenced you, and about inviting more new-to-you poets to that party. 

No great writer writes in a vacuum; literature is a long conversation that has been happening for literally thousands of years. Every writer is part of a web or family of writers that connect back and forth across centuries and even languages. For example, in the 19th century, the French poet Charles Baudelaire was a huge fan of the work of the American poet Edgar Allan Poe, which he translated into French. Poe influenced Baudelaire, who went on to influence many of the great French poets who followed him, like Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Then, in the 20th century, many New York School poets, like Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, fell in love with these French poets, and Ashbery translated many of them into English. If you look at a number of contemporary poetry magazines, you will likely see the influence of O’Hara and Ashbery in a lot of the work being published today. (You might also see poems by Ashbery himself, as he remains remarkably prolific for a poet well into his 80s.) Which is to say, poets never stop talking to each other.

If you got started on your Inspiration Book last week, then get it out. If you didn’t get around to that last week, let’s get started now. If you feel stuck over where to start, make a list of your favourite books, starting from childhood. (The books we read over and over as kids often stay with us for a lifetime.) Even if you think a book isn’t “serious” enough to write down, write it down. Are there any books you’ve read more than once in the last five years? Circle those, or put a star next to them. Go find some of those books and leaf through them. Find a sentence you love and copy it down. Do this until you fill a couple of pages with sentences from different sources. Be sure to make a note of which book each line came from and the author’s name.

If you don’t have any poems in this book yet, start looking for some you love in the Poetry In Voice anthology. Are you memorizing a poem? Copy that one down in your Inspiration Book. If not, find one you would love to know by heart, a poem that you wish you had written yourself. Copy it over three times in your book, slowly and carefully. How does it feel to consciously think of your favourite writers as part of your family, to claim them as relatives? You can even make a family tree, by identifying a poet you really love and researching which other poets they hung around. And then figure out who they loved to read over and over. It goes back and back. Ezra Pound, who mentored T. S. Eliot and dated H.D., once quipped, “Read seeds, not twigs.” He meant the further back you go down into the roots of the poetry tree — say back to Homer’s epics or Sei Shonagon’s pillow book — the more powerful the material is.


Writing Ideas


Write a poem that directly answers back to the speaker of one of your favourite poems. You can argue against the original poem’s position, like Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” does with Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love”. Or write a poem in the voice of your favourite writer, as Alice Notley did in her poem “Jack Would Speak Through the Imperfect Medium of Alice”, which is about the poet and novelist Jack Kerouac.


Go through all the lines you’ve copied down in your Inspiration Book and choose one line to steal. Use this line in a poem of your own, either as the first line, last line, or title. Go.


From the Library

  • Revisit some of your favourite books from childhood and try to find out who your favourite authors’ favourite authors are. Find at least one new poet — and poem — to love this week.


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