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Copyright © 1999 The Pennsylvania State University

The Palimpsest Review - Volume 7

Palimpsest onLine!'s Professional Writers at Work

 
H. Kassia Fleisher: "Spinning Miss Stein's Grave"
Todd Davis: "Looking for theLight"
Jeff Worley: "Tapping the Wellspring of Language"
Prudence Grimes: "Writing My Father's Stories"
Ray Petersen: "The Cardinal Trait of the Writer"
Dev Hathaway: "The Art of the Story"
Karen Blomain: Two Poems
Len Roberts: Seven Poems
Len Roberts: Cohoes Theater (PDF Book)
Maria Jacketti: "Objects of Poetry"
Jim Manis: "Struggling to Publish"

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Last updated Dec. 26, 1999; first published to the web: Dec. 26, 1998.
The Palimpsest Review and Palimpsest onLine! are publications of The Pennsylvania State University. The words and ideas contained within their pages are the property of their authors and cannot be used for any purposes without the authors' specific written consent.

Jeff Worley (Poetry Judge)

Tapping the Wellspring of Language

hen I took my first creative writing class in poetry, several hundred years ago or so, we were given no guidance at all as far as how to write a poem. We had an anthology, titled Naked Poetry, which featured dozens of wonderful, memorable poems; the unspoken implication was we were to find some poets we liked there and in our own way imitate what they were doing. But there was no talk of how to get started, how to proceed, how to become companionable with the language once you sat alone with the pure and intimidating blank sheet of paper.
 Perhaps the most important thing I can say to young poets about the writing process comes from William Stafford, my fellow Kansan, who gave a lot of thought to how the poem happens on the page. In his famous essay “A Way of Writing,” Stafford says, 
 
A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them. One implication is the importance of just plain receptivity. To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me.”


He goes on to talk about the importance of getting something down on the page, anything really, a process which starts a chain reaction of words, line to line:
 

These things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected. After I let them string out, surprising things will happen. A strange bonus happens. At times, without my insisting on it, my writings become coherent; the successive elements that occur to me are clearly related. They lead by themselves to new connections. Sometimes the language, even the syllables that happen along, may start a trend. Sometimes the materials alert me to something waiting in my mind, ready for sustained attention. I know that the indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again.


  So Stafford celebrates the importance of letting language loose on the page, letting it accumulate, without judging its “goodness” as it takes you along. Only at the end of this process, he says, should you unmuffle the critic in your head. You know who I mean: the voice that says, “But this isn’t any good.” We all know that voice. It’s only business is to assign value to what we write. Although there is a time to pay attention to what’s “working” in the poem and what isn’t, that time is in successive drafts of the poem you write, not during the initial writing session.
  When I first started writing poems, I wouldn’t begin until I had “pre-formulated” the poem in my head: I already knew the subject, the tone, a few images, perhaps, sometimes even the ending—before I’d written one word down!
  This, I believe now, is a terrible way to go about writing poems. Perhaps the most magical and pleasing thing about writing is surprising yourself on the page, which you can’t do if you pre-think the poem. “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Frost says. The most interesting poems are those which surprise you in their progression, in the various imagistic and syntactic and thematic connections and leaps they make as the language gambols on. Or to think of it another way, any previously chosen subject matter, as William Matthews says, is literally a pre-text for writing the poem.
  I also believe it’s important, as a poet, to habitually keep your eyes and ears open—for images and for interesting tidbits of language. This is why, among writers, there are so many practiced bar sneaks. I was once in a local tavern, sipping lemonade, etc., when a guy none of us had ever seen came in, sat down next to a lovely RN we all knew named Donna, and said, loud enough for all of us to hear, “My name’s Richie. I been in the Kentucky pen for the past eleven years. Would you mine me sayin’, darlin’, that I dig your ass?”
  I couldn’t uncap my ballpoint fast enough! I took this serendipitous exclamation home with me on a cocktail napkin and used it later during my writing time to trigger a poem (titled, eventually, “Happy Hour at the Two Keys Tavern”). I once overheard on a bench in front of a small-town courthouse in Eastern Kentucky two old duffers talking. A three-legged dog with a blue bandanna around its neck galloped by. “I use to had a dog like that,” one of the gents said to the other. Write it down, take it home, and use it if you can to fire off a poem.
  One mistake a lot of young poets make is believing they haven’t “lived enough,” haven’t had enough life experiences to use as fodder for their writing. I think it was Hemingway (I could be wrong here) who said that by age twelve, everyone has a lifetime of material to draw from. And to get back to Stafford, what’s interesting about his approach is that an uncritical rush of language on the page allows for all sorts of memories and images to well up from the writer. Things you thought you’d forgotten rise to the surface and, in the service of the poem, volunteer themselves.
  One other advantage of getting a line or two down right away (start with anything!) when you sit in front of the blank sheet of paper: you never have to worry about writer’s block again.

Copyright © 1999 Jeff Worely


Jeff Worley teaches at the University of Kentucky. His work has appeared in such distinguished journals as College English, Three Rivers Poetry Journal, Tendril, The Threepenny Review, Poetry Northwest, Black Warrior Review, Prairie Schonner, The Literary Review, Southern Poetry Review, Boulevard, Harvard Review, The New Quarterly, New England Review, Shenandoah, New Virginia Review, Double Take, American Literary Review, The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, and Yankee.

The Only Time There Is (1995) won the Mid-List Press First-Book Poetry Prize. His chapbook, A Simple Human Motion, is forthcoming in January 2000 from Larkspur Press.

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