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.

Originally Published: February 18th, 2009

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...

  1. February 18, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Great to have you here, Camille, and thanks for a lovely post! I, too, enjoy reading poems that are direct responses to other poems or works of art, or that are littered with others' words (like Marianne Moore's poems, for instance).

  2. February 18, 2009
     Tara Betts

    Yes, I've always thought that Clifton and Brooks were having a conversation in those two poems without even trying. Such a moment to be able to hear one of them talking and sharing about it.
    I like the notion of keeping the work alive the best because poets should remind themselves of this when considering the work of other poets. Who do we want to continue, thrive and be remembered?

  3. February 18, 2009

    I like the way you draw this “conversation” out. And, rhythmically, your post embodies a conversational weave, beautifully done: the way poems talk to each other, poets talk to poems, poets to poets. This should be something we try to do here at Harriet, make it both a form of conversation, and an overhearing, as you referred to it. You seem to describe a layering of conversation and overhearing. Remember how the angels could overhear conversations in Wim Wenders’ film The Sky Over Berlin?
    But I think prose can be part of it to, the essay that is. You mention Robert Hass and Milosz – theirs was a conversation, initially, between languages. But one of the first times I really felt the click of modern prose, and actually how it seemed to be coming from someplace, perhaps, contiguous to the poem, picking up the poem’s energy at times, was when I read Hass’s introductory essay in Stephen Mitchell’s selected Rilke. This was a long time ago. But the essay mixed autobiography, travel, literary criticism. Later I got a similar charge from reading Joseph Brodsky’s volume of selected essays, Less Than One. And I think the conversation should extend to poet’s letters. Elizabeth Bishop’s letters are some of my favorites, and the title of that volume, One Art, carries the suggestion that prose and poetry can be facets of a similar drive.
    Anyway, I’m very happy with your list of links and plan to follow them.

  4. February 18, 2009
     Annie Finch

    Welcome, Camille! What a beautiful meditation on poetic conversations..

  5. February 18, 2009
     Hari Bhajan

    I, too, reveled in the tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned so much about her as an individual and the inspiration she provided for so many young poets. Lucille Clifton is near and dear to my heart for the courage in her poems and the no-nonsense, yet deeply empathetic, tone of her poems. I wrote a poem a few years ago in conversation with her "homage to my hips," finding it liberating and powerful to override the negative cultural standard about what is beautiful in a woman's body and to proudly declare an alternate perception, a more true one for me.
    "Poems should echo and re-echo against each other . . . They should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can." Jack Spicer in a letter to Robin Blazer. This is a quote from the introduction to the book, "Conversation Pieces: Poems That Talk to Other Poems" selected by Kurt Brown and Harold Schechter from the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets. Great selection. My favorite's are the two "Milkweed" poems. One by James Wright, the other by Philip Levine.

  6. February 18, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    Just the other day my husband and I were playing hangman (end of a flight, all electronic devices shut down). He laid out a seven letter word and gave me the clue: a message. I guessed e and then immediately spelled epistle. The letter is one of my favorite literary forms. One Art, those Bishop letters, was one of my most prized books in graduate school. I've been known to visit libraries around the world just to touch poets' letters. I absolutely agree that the letter, and the essay, too, can be amazing forms of conversation and literature. I just, also, adore the way poems, specifically, can speak among themselves.

  7. February 18, 2009
     Jennifer Clarvoe

    Dear Camille--
    A wonderful post. I'm not sure if it's kosher to do this, since I'm included in the book, but you might be interested in the Everyman Library Pocket Poets anthology that came out in 2007, edited by Kurt Brown and Harold Schechter, called, CONVERSATION PIECES: Poems That Talk To Other Poems.
    Yours in the common pursuit,

  8. February 19, 2009
     Sarah Browning

    Great post, Camille. I especially loved the cross-generational dialogue in Lucille Clifton's reading of those two poems, the way the conversation can continue down through time, the way we younger poets could feel the presence of Brooks through the warm and thoughtful presence of Clifton.
    Also, on reading your post, I realize that sometimes I've been embarassed at how directly I've responded in a poem of my own to a poem by another poet, as if ashamed to expose my weak ego boundaries or something. Now I know what I've been doing - I've been in poetic conversation! I'm firing the shrink.

  9. February 19, 2009
     Camille Dungy

    It's funny how we sometimes feel abashed about paying homage to the works and poets we love. But isn't all, or at least a large portion, of literature either an homage to or an argument against what's come before? I'm not going to advocate the firing of shrinks. Who knows but the shrink might be crucial for some other issue, but no need to feel bad about loving something you read and letting that love show through in what you write.
    There were actually several generations at the Brooks tribute, and that was very exciting. Brooks influenced Clifton who influenced my generation who is now teaching the next generation. Each generation puts their own mark on things, but ah..sweet continuity!

  10. February 21, 2009

    That moment in the Brooks Tribute was one of my AWP highlights as well! Thanks for preserving -- and enlarging -- it here, for me to return to again and again...
    Scholars would call what you're describing in this post "intertextuality." But "poems in conversation with other poems" -- as a metaphor -- is a much more poetic way of putting it! By any name, this "rose" is something I read for all the time; I'm thrilled when I find it; and I've written more than a few myself. Unlike Sarah, I never thought to be embarrassed about that. It's a time-honored way for poets to write themselves into a tradition: through homage to those we admire, critique of those who drive us crazy, and pointed riffing on poets in both of those categories and everyone in between. : ) One of my favorite instances, of a different sort than the Clifton/Brooks convo, is how Harryette Mullen's "Dim Lady" rewrites Shakespeare's sonnet 130.