Ansel Adams, Church, Taos Pueblo, 1942


earthweal weekly challenge
by Joy Ann Jones (hedgewitch)

Greetings and welcome to earthweal, where I have been invited to usher in All Hallows with a challenge featuring the first poems we as writers took to heart. These are the poems that opened our eyes to poetry, poems that even when we have assimilated or outgrown them, still show up under every word we write and forever shape our own voice, our own points of view, our perceptions of what poetry is, how we access it, and the unique eye it gives us for the world inside and around us.

A discussion of poetic influences may seem a bit removed from the wider mission that earthweal fosters, that of speaking out in concern and in care for the well-being of our threatened planet , but at earthweal I have always found a reverence for the wild, for what still lives free , both in the natural world, and  in ourselves. That first voice we find so often depends on an eye for what is wild within us and that is the very eye that can give us an affinity to all wild things as we grow, bringing us out from a juvenile world of separation to a more mature one of inclusion.

Today we’re going to look back at our younger selves, back to the first poems that made us notice them, and see where they have taken us. I will give some examples from my own story, but of course, each of our stories begins in a unique place which this challenge asks you to revisit.

When I was roughly 8 years old, I encountered my own first poem. I don’t think anyone who’s read my poetry will be surprised to learn it was a ghost story, or that it was written in a rhyming ballad form. My Swedish immigrant grandparents had lovingly put their pennies together to buy me a set of Childcraft Encyclopedias, and I happily read many of the volumes cover to cover, particularly those on literature, myth, history and archeology.  What I read there certainly shaped both my poetic eye and who I am today. Below is a page from the 1954 edition of Childcraft with a brief but characteristic excerpt from my very first favorite poem, one that with its romantic hero, vivid, dramatic language and tragic heroine a shy, introverted and lonely child surrounded by busy adults could only be completely captivated  by:



If you wish, you can read the entire poem where ‘Bess the landlord’s daughter’ brings about her own death with the musket beneath her breast  here. {link}

As time went on, I moved to more sophisticated writings, but always I’ve been drawn back to the fantastic and the fated , the wild myth, the  fairy tale with a grim ending, the ghost story or the murder ballad, such as this one by Keats :


John Keats

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
       So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
       And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
       With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
       Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
       Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
       And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
       And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
       And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
       And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
       A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
       And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
       ‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
       And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
       With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
       And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
       On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
       Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
       Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
       With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
       On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
       Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
       And no birds sing.

Paramount among my early influences however, (and in keeping with the approach of All Hallows) was Edgar Allan Poe, who famously said,  ” “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” and my teenage self agreed with him, never more so than in this atmospheric poem of lost love, and one which always breathes out to me the underlying death of the natural world and its reflection in ourselves implicit in the coming of autumn:


Edgar Allan Poe

The skies they were ashen and sober;
      The leaves they were crispéd and sere—
      The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
      Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
      In the misty mid region of Weir—
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
      In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
      Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul—
      Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
      As the scoriac rivers that roll—
      As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
      In the ultimate climes of the pole—
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
      In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
      But our thoughts they were palsied and sere—
      Our memories were treacherous and sere—
For we knew not the month was October,
      And we marked not the night of the year—
      (Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber—
      (Though once we had journeyed down here)—
We remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
      Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
      And star-dials pointed to morn—
      As the star-dials hinted of morn—
At the end of our path a liquescent
      And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
      Arose with a duplicate horn—
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
      Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said—”She is warmer than Dian:
      She rolls through an ether of sighs—
      She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
      These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
      To point us the path to the skies—
      To the Lethean peace of the skies—
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
      To shine on us with her bright eyes—
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
      With love in her luminous eyes.” ..

….Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
      And tempted her out of her gloom—
      And conquered her scruples and gloom:
And we passed to the end of the vista,
      But were stopped by the door of a tomb—
      By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said—”What is written, sweet sister,
      On the door of this legended tomb?”
      She replied—”Ulalume—Ulalume—
      ‘Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
      As the leaves that were crispèd and sere—
      As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried—”It was surely October
      On this very night of last year
      That I journeyed—I journeyed down here—
      That I brought a dread burden down here—

      On this night of all nights in the year,
      Oh, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber—
      This misty mid region of Weir—
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber—
      In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

I will leave you with one more poem from my mature years that opened my inner eye to the wildness — and the order — inherent in myself, the world, and others:


Wallace Stevens

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

                           It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

So, what are the first words that gave you that “..maker’s rage to order words..”? Your challenge is to look back to the first poems that helped you to find your own inner eye and voice, and write about it. Perhaps it was the poem you reluctantly read as an assignment and came to love, or one that was read to you by someone as a child. Or later, that poem that you discovered yourself that spoke loudly in your mind: “This is important. This is what I want to carry, to live and to write.” Feel free to post an older poem if it comes directly from that early eye, or to write about the poet who inspired you, or in a format that reflects your own interpretation of it. This is all about how our first poems become part of our first voices, and how those voices are always with us because they have become part of our own. If you can include an echo of the natural world, even if it’s only the wind as a torrent of darkness, that will be all to the good, but is not mandatory.

— Joy



untitled marina by Zdzlaw Beksinksi


  1. How great to have you here Joy/Hedgewitch, offering portal to the wild dark where we learned to sing. A creaky door for All-Hallows, rimmed with rhyme, fish drool ‘n’ witch soot. I was struck by the consistent hallowing echo of a woman’s voice in Keats and Poe and Stevens, a century’s worth of moony resonance from “Her hair was long, her foot was light, / And her eyes were wild” to “At the end of our path a liquescent / And nebulous lustre was born, / Out of which a miraculous crescent / Arose …” to “As we beheld her striding there alone, / Knew that there never was a world for her / Except the one she sang and, singing, made.” Brigit butter of first song, Hecate screech of the wild, Bheare the weaver of cold winter blasts: Three charms in one for the spell we’ve never wakened from since we heard it out on the mound. And who knows how many hundreds of centuries older voices sing low harmony to ours. Gonna be fun, Hedge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very happy to be here, Brendan. You quote my favorite lines from those poems, and I hope they will encourage others to examine and share their own first favorites, as well as revisit them to pass around for us all a drink of their own poetic mead.


  2. Good Grief. I am having a chaotically inept morning. My first link is to a 2019 poem for an old Imaginary Garden prompt whose url always shows in Mr. Linky, and which I forgot to clear. Feel free to remove it, Brendan. Very sorry for the confusion.


  3. First, thank you so much, Joy, for crafting with such care this remarkable and fascinating challenge. I always love to know what a writer’s influences are, what struck that deep chord inside of them that felt real and necessary and vital.
    Your examples are fascinating as well. I read that Poe considered himself a poet above all, and indeed, he is a master at it. No one–no one!–crafts language and meter together as he does. ‘Ulalume” is a special favorite of mine (as is La Belle Dame Sans Merci) and it perfectly illustrates Poe’s uncanny skill as well as your point about his subject matter. I also noticed how he and Stevens use words in an unusual form without them ever sounding clunky, such as “legended’ (Poe) and “artificer” (Stevens). That is very hard to do well, but they are masters at it.
    I can so see you in these influences, Joy. I can just feel young you absorbing these words and rhythms like a sponge and having them become part of you on a deep level. Your study (and here I mean study for love, not the dry study of the college course) of these things inhabits and illuminates all of your writing and gives it an earned authority and feeling that only comes from this alchemy of turning experience, learning, and emotion into art. Just a wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You inspire me, Joy. I enjoyed reading of your early poetic influences and you’ve lured me into writing of mine. It’s not surprising at all either that your essay writing style is as bewitching (it’s All Hallow’s Eve) as your poetry. My daughter was the same age as you when she discovered “The Highwayman” and absolutely loved it. Happy Halloween my friend! 🎃🧡

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Joy, I enjoyed reading your post and learning about your foundations in poetry that started your journey. I may try to write a detailed response and link up later but for now, here are the poems I remember from childhood on that stuck: “September” (it starts “A road like brown ribbon…”,) “Young Charlotte, or The Frozen Maid,” “Invictus,” and “A Psalm of Life.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this wonderful challenge, Joy – I am late, but I am here. I will catch up with reading over the weekend, as I am interested to read everyone’s responses…


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