From a 2010 Poets Forum panel discussion titled "Poetic Affinities & Inspiration" featuring poets Robert Pinsky, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Gerald Stern discussing what inspires what they write and, more importantly, what they read.
Naomi Shihab Nye: Those of us who have encountered poetry throughout our lives know that once you have read, responded to, carried with you, poems that create a certain kind of high line—my favorite New York place now—within yourself, you just keep wanting to go back to it.
I can never imagine how someone would fall in love with poetry and stop reading poems. But I think that people often talk themselves out of a bit of responding, which I think is just as important as collecting. We collect poems that encourage us to think in a way that we need to think, or look at the world. But then we also should allow ourselves—whatever our circumstances, or whatever our past history with writing—to write a little bit.
I've carried, for perhaps 30 years, a very tattered piece of notebook paper that says:
Philip Levine has described the muse as 'being the portion of the self that largely lives asleep. Being inspired is really being totally alive.' He says that such a state feels a 'little odd' and also 'delicious.'
Well, everyone who falls in love with poems has that taste—that sudden savoriness of experience— given to him or her wherever that poem has encountered them. It is often shocking to have conversations on planes with adults, or to visit schools where the students have not been regularly reading or writing poetry, and feel the hunger in most of us for that kind of delicious experience, whether it's even been identified.
And I do think that sometimes one of the most precious elements of affinity and inspiration is gathering up poems so that you'll be able to put your fingers on them later to hand to someone at the appropriate moment, to give to the friend who needs it right then, to e-mail to the person who's hurting.
I carry a poem by William Stafford, "The Sky."
[Naomi Shihab Nye reads "The Sky"]