Every quarter, a writer or an artist or a musician tells us about the things that inspire them.
"My Papa's Waltz" may not have been the first Roethke I read, but it was the first that made a deep impression on me. I learned it by heart. I encountered Roethke and Yeats in a freshman composition course at the University of Washington in Seattle. (I committed a couple of Yeats poems to memory, also.) At that time, Roethke had been dead for about a decade and his spirit was felt through the presence of his former students, namely David Wagner and Nelson Bentley. I also felt Roethke's influence through Richard Hugo and Tess Gallagher. When I think of Roethke I think of his breadth of style and form – tight, metrical stanzas; acute sensory detail in the greenhouse poems; depth of feeling in sorrowful gems like "Elegy for Jane (My Student, thrown by a horse)"; movement and music in the meditations. Always the eye for the natural world. And the playfulness; the children's poems. He inspires me to play different instruments in the poetry orchestra, to be ordered or chaotic, philosophical or playful. And that villanelle.
The term after I was introduced to Yeats and Roethke, I met Adrienne Rich by way of Diving into the Wreck. Her power took me. I craved her poems and essays and committed at least one poem to memory. She inspired me to write authentically, with honesty. I don't think I've wholly lived up to that charge.
It may be that clouds and skies and trees are what inspire me, but their framing through a window gets me looking and imagining. On a walk, I'm in the thick of it. Windows offer a distance; a useful separation.
Bits, Separation, Series
I've been writing multi-part poems for about as long as I've been writing. They may have been popular when I was in my first workshop. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" was likely the prime inspiration along with my difficulty in making decisions. When I was about eight, my friend Ann invited me to go with her family to the zoo. When we stopped for a snack, I could not choose between ice cream or popcorn. I don't how long I dithered, but I can see her father with his crew cut framing his florid face, leaning over me, totally exasperated, and yelling at me to choose. I wanted both, or, more likely, wasn't sure which would be the right snack for that moment and what if I chose ice cream and would never ever get to eat popcorn? I remember that. I don't remember what I picked.
Why choose one way of looking at a blackbird? Why choose to write about one of the lunar seas? My refusal to choose one view has led me to a fascination with series, with related things. It's only recently that this has been brought to my consciousness as a thing and I've decided to dive deep into it and gather all of these series – seas, roads, butterflies, mothers – together. It's brought me to double crowns and Bach suites.
Poems, novels, memoirs, newspapers, recipes. Sentences and phrases on the page inspire me. I copy them out as springboards into poems. I wrote "Poem Ending with a Line by Michael Ondaatje". I've considered writing a book full of poems beginning with or ending on lines from someone else's prose or poem.
Listening to music. Listening to the ocean or rivers or lakes. Listening to birds and the wind. It's not the sounds I hear, per se, but intentional listening that can inspire. Listening to poems. Listening to poems read aloud by the poet, in the same room as the poet, inspires me. Inspires, I mean, as in giving me seeds for poems. Listening to recordings or readings via Zoom or YouTube doesn't have the same effect. I have a programme from a reading Derek Mahon gave in Los Angeles about thirty years ago with scratchings for a poem squeezed in the margins.
Jamie O’Halloran’s poems appeared most recently in The Honest Ulsterman and Spillway. Her poetry reviews are in or forthcoming in Lit Pub and Tupelo Quarterly. Jamie and her husband live in Connemara in the West of Ireland with one pair each of cats and donkeys.