Illustration by Shenuka Corea

Poetry Lessons from Gregory Pardlo

The Gazelle talks to Pulitzer prize winning poet Gregory Pardlo about poetry, objects and the poetic eye.

Feb 17, 2018

On Feb. 8, Gregory Pardlo, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor, gave a talk at NYU Abu Dhabi Institute entitled, The Poet’s Eye: How Poetry Can Teach Us To See The World, and More of It. He discussed how his method of writing poetry became centered on particular objects that attracted his attention.
When I met him at the library café the following Monday, I asked him how he looked for the objects he turned into poetic subjects.
“It’s about being attentive to my environment, a way of being in the world,” said Pardlo. “For some reason, those fire extinguishers are capturing my attention.”
I followed his gaze to where the fire extinguishers were embedded in the café wall behind me.
“So if I’m attentive to my environment, there’s a reason why these red fire extinguishers are drawing my attention. I don’t necessarily know why it is right now,” said Pardlo.
“Anticipating a fire?” I asked.
He laughed. “I don’t know. I refrain myself from making assumptions because, in the case of writing a poem, I want to be open to discovering. If I presume that I know already why then I’ll probably say, Okay, you’re afraid of this place burning down, it’s your paranoia working. But I want to be open to the possibility that something surprising may be further embedded in my psyche.”
Pardlo is interested in “how to collapse the distance between [him]self and the object.” Since what moves us about an object or work of art does not come from the object, but from within ourselves, the bridge between the object and the poet must necessarily be constructed from something in his own mind or from his own experience.
“If I say, I want everyone to know that the fire extinguishers are here, that’s an unintentional response — a reaction. The first intentional response, then, in terms of the poem, is why do I care so much about these fire extinguishers? When I move into the intellectual cognitive realm, the craft area, I’m asking, what does this thing mean to me?” he said.
Often, our attempts to construct meanings and relationships between ourselves and what we encounter can be similar to cognitive bias or illusory correlation. Perhaps poetry is a hope that these tricks of the mind have something to say, a hope that our impulses can reveal something more than some quirks of our cognition.
I use the word hope because Pardlo cautions against expectation.
“Expectations foreclose on possibility,” he said. “There are plenty of poems where I can read that the poet has expectations for the poem. The poet sits down and says, I’m going to write a poem about x, and the poet sits down and writes a poem about x. That is the most boring experience for me. There’s no fun! Because all the poet has done is an act of reportage, right? You’ve already decided that this thing in the world behaves and proceeds in this manner, and there’s no discovery there.”
The process of discovery leads to some strange places and Pardlo doesn’t always trust his impulses. “I want to see where they’re trying to lead me but sometimes we’ll get to the place, and I’ll say, Oh, [that’s] where you’re going?” he laughed.
Yet it is always important for him to maintain his curiosity about where the impulse may lead, even if it doesn’t yield any answers.
“The unknowability of the object, of the other, is humbling,” he said. “The more I acknowledge its unknowability, the more attached to it I become.”
Rosy Tahan is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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