tracing sources//being selfish

In the poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” by Billy Collins, is this brilliant stanza:

“I say drop a mouse into a poem/ and watch him probe his way out,/ or walk inside the poem’s room/ and feel the walls for a light switch”

I came across these four lines written on a sidewalk at Governor’s Island, when I attended their annual poetry festival.  I wanted to draw attention to this image of probing a way out of a poem–aren’t we all feeling around for a light switch? Isn’t it this that steers us closer to the source of our poetry? The source of poetry in general?

Ah, the source of poetry. The business of tracing sources, which is a theme of Catherine Halley’s “Detective Work” interview with Susan Howe. This interview is what brought me back to this poem by Billy Collins. Which brings me to my next point.

If I am to say that Halley’s interview with Susan Howe reminded me of four specific lines in a poem by Billy Collins, am I also saying that poem was a source for Halley?

This is the frustration I had, reading the interview with Howe.  Aren’t we ultimately always informing our understanding of a poem by US, OURSELVES?  I did that very thing while reading the interview.

Which brings me to my final point.

I want to be selfish with my sources. And I think all poets are selfish with their sources. This act of tracing sources is ultimately an act of probing a way inside ourselves.

Aren’t we all writing ourselves?


I hope we can find a balance between writing into ourselves and exploring the sources of other poets.

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