four poems

I have a folder where I put poems I’ve printed or been given or copied out of books. Maybe someday I’ll put them in a notebook so I’ll think to look in it more often. Three poems were mentioned in connection with the manuscripts we discussed in my March Sirenland workshop. I was not familiar with any of them. A fourth one I discovered on the same page as the third one. Here are a few lines from each:

1) “After great pain a formal feeling comes” by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

2) “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone” by W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

3) “A Third Body” by Robert Bly (1926-)

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not-talking.

4) “A Story About the Body” by Robert Haas (1941-)

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony,
had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost
sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her
work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used

When I was working on my novel, I would start by reading a poem or two. I think I’m going to go back to that for a while–light a candle, read a poem, get to work….

Do any of you read poetry before writing? Do you have a favorite poem you read over and over?

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15 thoughts on “four poems

  1. Yes, I read 10-20 poems for every one I write, and most days I read for an hour and write for an hour.
    I read many different poets and I think as a result I write in a variety of forms (though one voice, more or less, I think).
    My poems are at


  2. Thanks for the goosebumps. That’s what I love about poetry. It cuts right through me and evokes a physical response. Seriously beautiful post. Auden. Oh, Auden. No words, all I can do is marvel.


  3. That line, “after great pain, a formal feeling comes” is one of my all-time favorites. I also adore the Auden poem. I read poetry as well and find it intensely moving. Thank you for these reminders of such beloved lines.


  4. Love the Bly & Dickinson poems.

    I have a stash of favorite poems I keep adding to. At the moment it’s nearly 200 pages deep. I regularly return to a few poems, to read and study them, including Plath’s Lady Lazarus and Stafford’s Assurance. Also Walcott’s Love After Love. And The Thing Is by Ellen Bass. There are also some Clifton & Sexton & Bishop favorites in there, as well as Rich and Neruda, etc.

    A new fave is Seven Of Pentacles by Marge Piercy. Just discovered it and it deserves a few readings.


  5. I don’t know why I never thought of reading a poem before writing fiction. I do read poems before I write poems, especially when I’m just blanking. Reading it just puts me in writing mode. I’m going to have go read some poetry.


  6. You make me want to go back and read more Dickinson.

    My favorite poet if Robert Frost, but I also find myself revisiting T.S. Eliot. My son recited a few lines, and I asked if he had studied The Love Song at school, but he was just parroting back lines he’d heard me and my husband recite. Poor kid, I made him and his sister sit down and listen to the whole poem.

    I don’t read anything other than the NYT before I start my writing day. Sometimes I have to tone down the lyrical voice to fit the character. Reading poetry would only make that tendency more pronounced.


    • Sarah, how wonderful that your children can/will recite lines of poems to you! I like Robert Frost too. And I’m so glad you pointed out a potential downside to reading poetry before writing. That way, if I find I need a less lyrical voice, I can switch to some other type of warm-up.


  7. Wonderful post, Cynthia! I have read and written poetry most of my life, in between painting, and often during painting. I will pause in the painting process to read poetry as it seems to evoke and spark images for me. I have too many favorite poems to even begin to name them but I do return often to Dickinson, Sexton, Susan Griffin, Mary Oliver, Rumi, Hafiz, Lalla Ded, Tagore, Neruda, Antonio Machado, and lately Octavio Paz. My love of poetry only deepens and broadens as I grow older.


    • Thanks, Holly. I appreciate your taking the time to post a comment. Until I read this, I hadn’t really thought about what painters do for inspiration. Now I realize I could just as easily start my writing day by looking at paintings. Which I basically did with my first novel without realizing I was doing it. Nice to know you write too. So many creative people I know are creative in more than one medium. But not me; I can just squeeze enough creativity out of my rational self for writing!


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