quotations as poetry inspiration

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Famous Quote, Humble Catalyst

Galway Kinnell once said, “The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness.'” David Kirby must have been listening. Check out where his poem “Taking It Home to Jerome” starts and ends:


Taking It Home to Jerome
by David Kirby

In Baton Rouge, there was a DJ on the soul station who was
always urging his listeners to “take it on home to Jerome.”

No one knew who Jerome was. And nobody cared. So it
didn’t matter. I was, what, ten, twelve? I didn’t have anything

to take home to anyone. Parents and teachers told us that all
we needed to do in this world were three things: be happy,

do good, and find work that fulfills you. But I also wanted
to learn that trick where you grab your left ankle in your

right hand and then jump through with your other leg.
Everything else was to come, everything about love:

the sadness of it, knowing it can’t last, that all lives must end,
all hearts are broken. Sometimes when I’m writing a poem,

I feel as though I’m operating that crusher that turns
a full-size car into a metal cube the size of a suitcase.

At other times, I’m just a secretary: the world has so much
to say, and I’m writing it down. This great tenderness.


Of course, I don’t know that Kirby was familiar with Kinnell’s words, but it almost seems like “Taking It Home to Jerome,” which starts with a specific and quixotic DJ in Baton Rouge (of all things), was written in response to the Vermont poet’s observation. Quote as prompt, if you will. And personal challenge: Can you take some specific quirkiness from your past and distill it to an abstract found in some famous person’s quote?

Occasionally, poets will be upfront about their inspiration. They might include an italicized quote under the poem’s title before launching in. Otherwise, we have no way of knowing. It is just as likely me making connections about tenderness as Kirby, in other words.

Tenderness, after all, is a universal feeling, and like all universal feelings it is in the public domain of ideas that all poets cherry pick from. A quote may try to sum the big word up succinctly, and a poem might attempt to elaborate, only the elaboration must be an act of compression, as all poetry is.

Have a favorite quote with an abstract emotion at its heart? Try writing a poem to it as a compressed exercise in elaboration. It may lead you to some surprising places, like Baton Rouge where, decades ago, a certain DJ had a certain saying that we might equate to poetry writing itself: “Take it home, Jerome. Get that poem done.”