Friday night, in Chicago, I attended a tribute event for Gwendolyn Brooks. Lucille Clifton read Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “the mother” followed by her own piece, “the lost baby poem.” A highlight of my time at AWP was hearing Clifton read one and then the next, and hearing her discuss how her poem participates in direct conversation with the other. Brooks provided Clifton with an example of poetry written plainly about the life she knew. Clifton said, “She allowed me to see that none of this should be called a sin. She wrote about truth and she wrote it all.” How exciting it was to witness this conversation! How exciting it can be to watch these conversations unfold again and again and again.
I love this overheard conversation between Brooks’ “the mother” and Clifton’s “the lost baby poem.” I love re-encountering Robert Lowell’s admission, quoted in The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic, that reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo” provided for him “a way of breaking through the shell of my old manner” and informed the completion of “Skunk Hour.” I’m delighted by Jeffrey Thomson’s claim that his poem, ”fabulous ones,” “comes from a sort of political conversation I was having, in my head at least, with Terrance Hayes. He has a Big Bird poem, and I thought that was a great idea, and so I stole his idea, and I put it to use in my own fashion.”
A "conversation I was having, in my head...” with one poet or another, this seems as good a way as any to spark a great poem. Like the conversations between Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Ralegh, Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz , Anthony Hecht and Matthew Arnold, every third poet and Sappho. Poets in conversation with real and imagined poets, poems in conversation with other poems, these dialogues help keep our work alive. When we converse with, argue against, mimic, re-present, and admire other poets in our poems we inevitably grow. We move further than we might have known how to push ourselves.
It’s the dialogue that manifests through poems that excites me most. The way the poems themselves reveal the poets’ concerns. It’s the work the poems do individually and in unison. A poet writing a poem about another poem. Not a poet writing an essay or a lecture in response to another poem, but a poet writing a poem. A poem reflecting a poem. It’s the sameness of form that intrigues me. When I was young my mother had a dressing room with mirrors on both walls. I’d stand in the middle, thrilled to see the same forms repeat and repeat and repeat.
It seems a little strange to say this in a blog. A blog seems, to me, to speak from a place separate from poetry. But I’ve had conversations, actual conversations, with poets I admire that suggest there is much I can learn from the experience of posting regularly on this blog. One thing I admire most about poems that speak to and with other poems is the way they take and reveal risks, the way they challenge themselves, how they usher poets into doing something new. So I am trying what, for me, is something new.
It’s nice to be on Harriet. I look forward to starting this conversation with you.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...