In a short talk for the University of Iowa's MOOC, Robert Hass outlines a technique he calls "sketching" to generate material for poems. He advises listeners to look around them, use what's in the room, what's in immediate proximity in terms of things, thoughts and feelings.

Plenty of exercises and writing prompts prescribe observation of this sort: go for a walk, record the sense impressions of a period of time in a particular place, or the place itself, and respond to them in some way. Matthew Zapruder's "Three Day Defamiliarization" (Wingbeats,ed.s Wiggerman and Meischen, 2011, Dos Gatos Press) is a good example. (Thanks Mary diMichele for pointing me to that.)

Seamus Heaney said (I'm paraphrasing, from Stepping Stones, Heaney's book-length conversation with Dennis O'Driscoll) that writing poetry over a long period was a cyclic movement, a pattern that involves getting started, keeping going, and getting started again. Like walking. One foot, then the other.

Masaoka Shiki recommends "sketching from life" for beginning poets.

Am I ever not beginning?

In my own practice, I return often to this kind of recording, especially when I feel most distant from poetry.

It can be surprisingly difficult to focus attention outward in this modest, practical, essentially literal way, to attempt to record things-as-they-are: a condition that both does and doesn't exist.

From such grounded beginnings, Shiki recommends poets incorporate fictive or imagined elements in their poems, and only once this is mastered, presumably after long apprenticeship, to undertake to write "poetic truth" -- whatever that is.

When I sit down, distant from poetry, lamenting that distance, and start to record what's around me, I'm reminded that I know how to do at least this much. 

It's only when doing this gets me to something I have no idea how to do -- a frisson of "this!" followed immediately by "how? what next?" -- that I rediscover poetry, from the beginning.