I looked out the tall windows. Beyond them was a wrought-iron balcony and, below, a busy, noisy street. Above them was a half circle of leaded stained glass in the pattern of a wreath of flowers. The colors deepened in the morning light. Blue, I suddenly typed. Vivid blue, I thought, then ocean blue. No, that's too pale. Cobalt blue. Yes. Red, I typed. Not fire engine red, but cherry red. Amber, and green—not like an emerald but like a new lawn. The wreath of colors seemed suddenly beautiful, and my fear mysteriously receded. I began to write.
In the week that followed, no matter how late or early I called, the boyfriend was out. In the morning, alone in New York, I would wake up and look at the stained-glass flowers; because I had written about them, they were suddenly as much mine as the vases or the quilt. The few sections of blue and green that had fallen out of the wreath had been replaced, I noticed, not with color but with clear glass. One morning when I called, a sleepy woman's voice answered my boyfriend's phone. As I looked up at the windows, blank with grief and anger, the blue and red and green abruptly turned everything odd and scary. It was a relief, I decided, to see through plain glass, to see the actual color of the brick building across the street and, above it, the real blue of a cloudless sky. What I didn't know was that I had learned to think like a poet.
Wordsworth wrote that poetry comes from "emotion recollected in tranquillity." That recollection can become almost a trance in which one's imagination seems magically to gather what one sees and hears into language for what normally remains hidden, even from oneself. Had I not been thinking like a poet, the clear window would have been just a clear window. "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," Emily Dickinson wrote. "The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs– / The stiff Heart questions...." There are moments like that in all our lives. At those times the imagination, if we let it, can loosen the stuff of life and we can think like poets, allowing ordinary pain to lessen, spirit and radiance to take over.
But how do we put that mystery into language? In a poem called "Personal Letter No. 2," Sonia Sanchez achieves it with the simple displacement of a word: "if i were young / i wd stretch you / with my wild words / while our nights / run soft with hands." We expect "soft hands," but not "soft with hands." What she does trips us up, making a night of love immediate, almost physical. Try that yourself. Write a sentence and move the words around, or substitute a surprising word for the expected one. In her poem "Young," Anne Sexton does something similar: "A thousand doors ago / when I was a lonely kid / in a big house with four / garages and it was summer / as long as I could remember...." It took me several readings to notice she'd written doors where I expected years.
There are many ways to gather material for poems. One of my friends collects fragments of language she hoards like jewelry; another takes road trips, jotting down phrases from billboards, overheard conversation, street signs, or gravestones; another wakes to scribble, transforming her dreams to poems. I carry a notebook everywhere, small enough for my purse. Once I swerved to the side of a road to catch a poem: "How blond winter / grass hides a blue pond," I wrote, "as I stop my car now / to speak a prayer for the dead." Last fall my friend Carolyn Forché and I were writing together. "Look!" she said, pointing at the sky, and later this turned up in a poem: "as all afternoon the clouds float west to east, leaf smoke and lake wind, pumice and plumbago grey...."
We Hear You!