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First (Poetic) Love

July 2013

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

The first time I heard a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye 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.

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).

As always, there is more about this prompt and others and things poetic on the Poets Online blog.
For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


A friend of mine gave me a copy of
Given Sugar, Given Salt
by Jane Hirshfield.

The addicts in my family were doing their thing,
and I was feeling down,

so I turned to page 6.


"The woman of this morning's mirror
was a stranger
to the woman of last night's;
the passionate dreams of the one who slept
flit empty and thin
from the one who awakens."

I flipped to page 8.


"Once, a certain hope came close
and then departed. Passed me by in its familiar
shawl, scented with iodine woodsmoke."

Turned to the last page.


"There is a stage in us where each being,
each thing, is a mirror.

Then the bees of self pour from the hive-door,
ravenous to enter the sweetness
of flowering nettles and thistle."

Who is Jane Hirshfield?
What kind of mind is this?
Her words resonated in my heart
but not in my head.

I googled "Jane Hirshfield" and discovered
that she had put aside her writing
to study at the San Francisco Zen Center.

Six years ago,

I found a Zen group and joined it.
Found a poetry group and joined it, too.
Saw the need for a Families Anonymous group and started one.

My three pillars.
Jane Hirshfield, hands in gassho.

Bobbie Townsend


One cold Nebraska morning
you walked in with fresh
mimeographed copies of
the poem you had just written
for Valentine's Day:

"If this comes creased and creased again and soiled
as if I'd opened it a thousand times…"

Four and twenty freshman
perched in rows
wide eyed and scrawny
fledglings every one

That day to be the early bird
the one whose mouth could open widest
as you folded the poem over once
and once again
and once again
and once again
until it was small enough to fit

To be fed words
so that one day I might fly

Anita Sanz
* inspired by Kooser's "Pocket Poem"


And I am dumb to tell I did not know
That Dylan Thomas wrote the poem. I thought
You turned genius.
Instead you went to college and I read
His poem you sent me, handwritten, as yours.

And am I dumb to tell my high school dream
Was bent by poet's fever? In love's spring
You stirred me quick.
Those superheated verses drove my flower
To distraction; you the poet, so I mused.

I'm dumb to tell I read it as love's fuse
(Odd love that spoke of shrouds and wormy tombs
To my green age).
The hand that wrote of young love's yearning force
Lured my lips with freshman English phrases.

The force of time drove love to drip and fall,
A candle's wax shrouding my naïve dream
Before it bloomed.
But am I dumb to tell your frat house lies
Leeched in my mind and choked our crooked rose?

Still, I stand struck dumb by Thomas' line:
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

Lois Veber-Altman


Sprung rhyme, sprung
rhythm, stress-marks like single wings
to lift unexpected syllables
in bird-flight and make the meter
skip its beat and sing. And those heaped-up
sounds compounding sentences
I couldn't explicate or diagram.
Forget grammar, forget the rules of logic.
Meaning is a hawk
with the bright of dawn in its talons
and wind in its eye.
On the page lives a mythic creature
of the English realm.
No name for it but poetry.

Taylor Graham


Separated by class and birth, by
yearnings beyond the here and
now, I sought the beauty of the
world evoked by one so foreign
to my time and place, where
life, in black and white, was spare.

I wandered through fields, paid
rapt attention to trees, sang with
grass riffled by morning breeze,
stood silent at noon on a hill
overlooking town—a spot of time
held forever against life’s care.

But love turned to ridicule as other
more cerebral gods clarified my path;
I laughed with the rest at the critic’s
reading of “The Idiot Boy,” groaned
at Anna’s stuffed Owl, plowed through
“The Excursion,” “The Egyptian Maid.”

Moderns took his place—Eliot, Pound,
Auden—more somber and more real,
or so it seemed, to one still groping for
a voice amid the rush of “getting and
spending.” And so, like luckless Lucy,
“in sun and shower” I went my way

“in solitude” and “pain of heart,”
leaving behind one too wordy,
too louche to be a guide. Other
masters of word and tone—Hardy
and Yeats—became the stars that
lit the darkling shadows of my night.

And yet, like the imprint of early
passion, certain lines remain
forever fixed, “felt in the blood,
and felt along the heart,” caught
in a mind strewn with fragments,
keeping faith with morning light.

Robert Miller

Inspired by ?maggie and milly and molly and may? by e. e. cummings

You stayed inside. Would stay inside
My shell-box of a life, reading books
With flimsy white jackets that
Fell off and flopped around like
Beached whales.

You read poems that played
childish games of
peanut butter and infinity in cute little boxes of middle America
Then you read of four girls at a beach, facing the unknown
And are appalled.
Number one in the class, perfect
At those grammar worksheets with little checkmarks,
Squiggle-slash (just so) for deletion,
(Or carrot
If you?re eight)
To insert the missing
You would have filled this poem with
Took a red pen
Fixed this abomination against Grammar and Capitalization
But, you admitted, you would always run on the beach
Kicking up behind your feet
Always running
Flinging yourself over sand barriers
And infinitesimal rocks
Doing petrichor dances
To mirror your own
And you see this in the poem
Vaguely, far away, childhood refracted backwards
(Inside, in a stuffy fake-wood-paneled den)
You love it
Especially when you don't realize
That shells hypnotize away selfhood;
And sing their hybrid spells of emptiness,
And morbid gothic hands
Rot on beaches, lonely and sad;
Cut off by the guillotine-gate
Between here and Elsewhere,
That land separated by tides;
And ?horrible things? are
Just crabs, just anticlimax,
Just creeping insecurity?
Souls lost to chance
And pebbles
Encapsulate reality?
You realize none of this.
And when you do,
You like it all the more.

Jaimie Carlson


Beatrice Curtis Brown,
I admire your empathy For “Jonathan Bing”,
maybe Bing was autistic
and you are artistic,
but you made me fall in love with
Poetry as read to me and my siblings
by our sensitive Mother
who read from her Child’s Book of Verses
while we gathered round her knees.

I have to say, “ho”, it’s not that easy
To be a poet, but I have so many poems
In my head from those that I read
or had read to me,
that I am like a library.

I fell in love with Neruda’s prose poem
“I love words so much,
I want to fit them all in my poem”
I went to hundreds of workshops
To learn how to take words out of my drafts
To revise them, which of course,
Is the harder thing to do
as it’s all about craft.

And then there was that
Louis Untermeyer paperback,
Treasury of Great American Poetry
my sister’s name inscribed in it
in blue fountain pen ink
from high school days in 1960:
I read it till its pages became brown
still I read it, as the paper crumbed
in my hand
one day I cried when the pages
were lifted by the wind.
I gathered them up,
and kept this tattered tome.

Then there was the Frost paperback,
Up from where sand dunes lie,
I am buried in the solid sand of poetry
Up to my brain in it.

And discovering International Book of Great Poems
finding Szymborska and other Polish poets, Milosz,
and that one who came to the NJ Poetry Biennial one year
whose poem the New Yorker published after 9/11
where he told us “you must praise the mutilated world.”

And how about that wonderful book Olga Ponorovsky
Showed me with Russian on one side
English translation on the other,
a book I have sought to own, for ages,
never finding the exact translation of that poem
I copied into my little red book, it’s best line:
“I am alone in the world’s prison cell.”
I plead guilty before the great judge:
I am a serial lover of poets, poems and ars poetica.

Margaret A. Dukes


Who are these people?
Who are these fearsome souls
Whose stern and somber portraits
Grace this slim compilation of poetry?
What place is this?
On what planet are humans exalted so,
For a few lines of artfully arranged vocabulary?

I was too young to know much about poetry
Beyond the garden and the goose,
But just old enough to be lightning-struck
By the realization that thought,
Apart from action,
Could be so revered.

O those lofty words of those inspired souls,
So tangled and torn in my child mind,
A foreign language driving me to despair
Over my exclusion,
My denial,
My inability.

A small shaft of light shone through a window.
I kicked open a door.
I stumbled upon the words:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

Next to this poem a faded photograph,
Sergeant Joyce Kilmer,
Wearing a steel Army helmet,
A doughboy,
"Killed in action, July 30, 1918."

Compared to the regal majesty of Longfellow,
The bookish bespectacled gaze of Kipling,
This young man with the feminine first name,
With the shadow of death in his last name,
Looked so peaceful and calm in his uniform,
So compassionate, yet resolute.

He was 31 years old when he died
On a barren French battlefield,
A sniper's bullet in his brain,
Famous for this poem,
This poem about the limits of poetry,
About the difference between an idea and a living thing.

So many years and poets later,
He has been called too simplistic,
Too sentimental,
Yet so many years and poets later,
It is he,
He who first taught me,
The difference between a poem
And a tree.

Russ Allison Loar

My Impervious Amber Colored Jewel
In Memory of Pablo Neruda

I love you, my impervious amber colored jewel
a circle formed slowly with assurances
that no one ever knew
of the lingering days while stretching the ticking of minutes
into the smoothest hours

grasping now the tender splendor of your
roundest, ripest
ready to be suckled and
greedily taken anew

to hold and caress all of
your riches
while spreading wide
the mind's eye
berth and girth
a sensual birth

cast me into the trembling arms
of your
Finest Muse

I love you,. my rich impervious amber colored

Lisa Honecker


I wonder how her husband feels
about his penis being all over her poems,
especially the earlier poems where
his penis was in its prime, her pen
was on fire, her nose for the poem
was sniffing the poem out uncannily
in every room in the house. Me, I'd
be tickled to have my penis appear
in a poem by Sharon Olds. In fact,
I sort of wonder what it would be like
to be making love to Sharon Olds
now that Sharon Olds is old and her
husband's penis appears less and less
in the poems. Last night I fell asleep
with her book lying open on my stomach,
a picture of the poet, still beautiful
in her late sixties, on the back jacket just
inches from my penis. And I dreamed
we were walking arm in arm like two old
lovers who were friends now, her children
and my children running ahead like scouts
pointing at something we couldn't make out,
calling impatiently to us, their small voices
like the poems we have yet to write. "Turn
up the heat," she said to me, and I knew
she could be talking about my poems
or she could be talking about my life,
and it would be the same thing because her eyes
were the same eyes, and her mouth was
slightly open, as if to say "kiss me" without
saying it. But I didn't kiss her in the dream,
I left her standing there, and I started running
really, really, really, really fast.

Paul Hostovsky


I plenty learned from you, Mr. Bones—
Your language and your liquor loving;
Your losses;
And your lookings for a god
To drive you home.
Your longings for a lady to linger and stay,
Even as you pushed her away,
With a wave.
As you walked that bridge like a tightrope,
Without your books in either hand
To give you balance.
I see what the world and you did to you, Mr. Henry,
And learn.

Ron Yazinski

(for Sylvia Plath)

The door was locked;
white wine incense
draped the table.
Feeding on our youth,
a supper of wit,
we dined,
occasionally pausing
to say grace beneath the table.

From outside the silver dining room,
echoing off the walls
in the halls of the sterile palace,
computer banjos
spewed rueful tunes
of monogrammed secrecy.
Singular incest
was the rule of the hour
for those who would play the game
I wanted to play, I think,
(did you?)
till you explained
the player’s entry fee
disguised till the final whistle blows.

So go back to chewing your bubblegum
or whatever you do nowadays;
I’ll bust open the locked door
with one good strong kick.

R. Bremner


A backward sunrise moving west to east,
Trying to tame this inner beast,
My heart is bleeding a very bright Crimson,
Shattered in a thousand pieces-not very winsome,

I imagine in my mind that I am Miss White,
Are we the same age? Similar in height?
We have a problem my heart is beginning to linger,
On a single thought-her wedding band on my finger,

Desire burns my body wrapped by fire and then ice,
If he were here right now I would try to entice him,
Yet I know in my heart that road isn't taken,
This story has been played years in the making,

If only surrounds me as my mind starts to balk,
Just listen closely as I need to talk,
I ramble I know but if feels so right,
It keeps this old woman warm on a cold winter's night.

Tina Galli


There you are asking where one found love
The real thing or the real thing in words.
Or perhaps it should be
With those other pragmatic words
Not where but when and who and why.

The people with music have it right
It is in the rhythm of a sterling spoon
When a child beats out a Mother Goose rhyme
Or in the lyrics from a Broadway Show.
'Do you love me?', asks the wife
While the Fiddler on the Roof hesitates.

So I guess we are like children
With an equivocal answer, Not Really
Meaning really which they won't acknowledge.

Love seems like native seeds that spouts
Where they may easily grow again and again;.
One harvests love as a leaf of mint
That one has smelled and tasted by surprise
Or the tones of a sweet song, a poet finds
That comforts oneself and the listening world.

I knew a poetess from Dallas Tex
Who sing western songs of loneliness
On a park bench at sunset overlooking
The Hudson; Sappho could do no better.
But the real world made her cynical
With working for a publisher
And pushing forth her poems of teenage woe.

Edward N. Halperin