This month, your challenge is take up the example of many other poets and pick up another writer's line. Then see where it leads you
This month, our eggs are poached. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, "Talent borrows, genius steals". Poets, I like to think, are poachers, and having taken what they need, they sneak home in the dark to savour their ill-gotten words. In the most extreme cases, poems like The Waste Land for instance, it seems like every line has been pocketed from somewhere or another, but this month's poached egg challenge will be a more modest form of the art of borrowing. We're talking about poems called 'Poem beginning with a line by …'
In Robert Duncan's "A poem beginning with a line by Pindar", the borrowing is at one remove, being from the Loeb translation of the Greek original. Pindar is celebrating the lyre's ability to make the dancer's feet attend to the music it plays. Duncan's poem quickly moves from Pindar to other artists and writers, and is, in part at least, a meditation on art and its role in our attention to the world, to history and to love.
John Ashbery's "Errors" is a study in human relations in the poet's characteristically oblique manner. Randall Mann poached Ashbery's opening line, "Jealousy. Whispered weather reports", and built a kind of deconstructed villanelle around it in his "Poem Beginning with a Line by John Ashbery". In Mann's poem the jealousy is no longer that which sours things between people; it has become an almost universal natural phenomenon.
Ashbery himself was no stranger to the art of foxing the gamekeeper. His "Poem Beginning with a Line from Gammer Gurton's Needle" is one of the oldest extant English comic plays. Ashbery's poem starts out in the low farce world of its source but soon moves to an entirely other sphere, an indeterminate narrative hovering on the verge of articulation.
Australian poet John Tranter liked a line by Kenneth Koch so much that he wrote not one but two poems beginning with it. The line "This Connecticut landscape would have pleased Vermeer" comes from Koch's "Fresh Air" and was intended as a parody of the kind of poem that tenured poets in American universities were producing at the time. Tranter takes the satiric intent a step further in his first poem, dismissing not just the poetry, but the whole faux countryman lifestyle that went with it. The second poem has a pop at representative art, as exemplified by Vermeer, and, by extension, the cult of landscape. Once again, we've moved some considerable distance from the original contents of the poacher's bag.
All the poems so far have begun with lines from other poems, but Anthony Robinson takes a line from an interview with the New York poet David Shapiro as his starting point. In the interview Shapiro says "I never gave up my love of what I already loved", referring to his love of poetic variety, his refusal to abandon the poetry he loved in his youth in favour of the latest orthodoxy. Robinson takes the line and turns it into a meditation on his love of an individual fellow-human, which is, in turn, love of life in all its rich variety.
Lisa Jarnot's "Poem Beginning with a Line by Frank Lima" is an almost incantatory riff on "and how terrific", the first three words of the poached line. The result is a maze-like structure, with syntax and imagery constantly turning back on themselves. The Lima poem that provided the line is not available anywhere online; maybe women make more adept poachers than men?
Of course, the source of a borrowed line doesn't have to be a poet. Donald Hall turned to a philosopher, and his two-line "Poem beginning with a line of Wittgenstein" is an extraordinarily neat upending of the reader's expectations.
And so this month's challenge is to write poems beginning with a line from a source of your own choosing. The source can be any kind of text, from canonical poet to advertising hoarding. The only requirement is that you make it your own. Happy poaching.