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Last updated Dec.
26, 1999; first published to the web: Dec. 26, 1998.
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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
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,
Rivers Poetry Journal, Tendril, The Threepenny Review,
Northwest, Black Warrior Review, Prairie Schonner,
Literary Review, Southern Poetry Review, Boulevard,
Review, The New Quarterly, New England Review,
New Virginia Review, Double Take, American Literary Review,
The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review,
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.