Influences: A Guest Post by Tom Sexton

I suppose pay attention to detail and know what you’re writing about is not the advice most poets are looking for, so I’ll finish with a discussion of influences. I mentioned in an earlier post that after I wrote “earth’s inviting bend toward Asia” in “Poolshark,” I sensed it was pointing me in a direction I needed to go.

I’ve admired the ancient Chinese poets since I read translations of their work by Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth many years ago. I gradually came to realize that I shared a mountainous landscape and a love of solitude with those poets. I also admire their brevity and attention to detail. They would be my mentors and guides. I could have a conversation with them, and by having a conversation with them I could broaden the range of my own poetry. I’m always surprised how little today’s poets seem to read the work of other poets beyond a few contemporaries if even that. I’ve often been inspired to write a poem after reading another poet’s work, and I believe I’m a better poet for it. For me the aim of writing poetry is to become a better poet.

Here are two of my “Chinese” poems:

The Marsh in Spring

At first light, an alder flycatcher
sings to the full moon

that has yet to fade.
A breeze moves our wind chime

so softly it could be the echo
of a distant bell.

I think of that ancient Chinese poet
who, picking lice from his robe,

placed them on a bit of silk
so they too could enjoy the dawn.

I do not know whether he was wise or foolish,
only that he was seldom melancholy.

* * *

Thinking of Tu Fu on a Summer Evening

At the end of a long day stacking wood

for winter, I sit on the cabin’s
stair and drink a glass of wine.
My thoughts soon turn to Tu Fu’s
long life of exile and wandering.
I imagine that I can see a path
into the mountains beyond the marsh.
If I were to set out, I would come
to a stream flowing into the Range
where no one has ever traveled
and there I would find Tu Fu
chanting a poem to the mountains.
He would ask of my long journey,
and I would tell him of the swans
nesting on a thousand small lakes,
that the fisherman’s net is heavy
that brown bears roam the meadows,
how the hair on your neck stands on end
when you sense movement in tall grass.
But most of all I would tell him
of the summer light: how at dawn
it is like a silk fan beginning to open,
and how long after midnight has passed
when that one is almost closed
another fan is opening far to the east.

Now to contradict myself. I’ve just finished a book of eight line poems, I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets, based roughly on the Chinese shih form which will be published by the University of Alaska Press in March, but at seventy I’m looking back to where I came from, and I’m finishing a second book about growing up in Lowell, Mass, but at the same time I feel an urge to get back to Anchorage and walk along the inlet. Perhaps I’ll see Denali or a cargo ship headed for port. I’ll end with two of my “Lowell” poems, one old one new.


To dispel my melancholy, I write another poem.

Tu Fu

I read that line years ago at dawn
and imagined melancholy as an old sweater
worn and thinning at the elbows,
a dark conceit to be used one day.
Today is the winter solstice.
The light barely touched the ground

when I went out to check the mail
where I found my sister’s unexpected memoir
and discovered that we had different fathers,
hers revealed by an aunt in her cups.
What am I to do with this image of my mother
hanged by her own hand in our basement
when I was learning how to be a soldier?
It’s already pitch black to the north.
I’ve pulled on that sweater to keep out the cold.

* * *

Woman Waiting, 1942

Slant light, the light Vermeer taught us
how to see, falls upon three women
who stand before a worn railroad station
where it seems a train has just arrived.
They wear dark winter coats that narrow
at the waist the way an hourglass narrows.
The tallest seems no stranger to sorrow.
Her face alone is turned to face the camera.
Another holds a small box tied with string,
a treat perhaps. The third wears an apricot
colored hat tilted to almost touch one ear.
There is new snow on the station’s iron roof.
Light and shadow, the secrets of the heart.
They stand together, and they stand apart.

I believe over the years I’ve fused my two worlds into one which unknown to me was my aim in the beginning.

Tom Sexton began the creative writing program at UAA in 1970. His latest book, I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets, will be released by the University of Alaska Press in February 2011.

3 thoughts on “Influences: A Guest Post by Tom Sexton”

  1. Tom, how wonderful to hear your thoughts and read your poems here. Though I live on Kodiak Island these days, I am sitting in the Omaha airport at the moment. Your posts on place are timely as I've been savoring the open land of my home state and at the same time missing the water and mountains that hold me in place on Kodiak. Way back, when you asked us in workshop to write about our influences, I remember writing about anonymous. It's amazing how clear those old voices are when I'm back in Wausa, the little town where I grew up.
    Thank you for sharing your poetry, old and new, and I look forward to your upcoming book of poems.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Tom, I've enjoyed the description of light in so many of your poems — such a great way to write about Alaska in a fresh way that spoke to me when I first came to this state, and speaks to me still. In this post, I loved the blending of Chinese with AK place description and that description of the silk fan of light closing after midnight, just as another is opening to the east.

    This, for me — the woefully poorly-read non-poet — is what poetry is all about: that unexpected comparison (or defamiliarization by any means), which shakes me out of my complacency and allows me to see the real world again. Such a gift.

  3. Hello Tom,
    How wonderful to see your writing and to remember you. You were a good influence in my young life.
    Kathleen Ashby Atkins (formerly Kathleen Ashby Bainbridge–years ago)

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