Writing poems is a little like fishing.  If you catch anything, the fish are often so small you throw them back.  Or if you don’t, you should.  But now and then you hook one worth bringing in.

At this point the fishing metaphor breaks down.  The “big” catch isn’t the poem itself, but rather the opportunity of making one.  You are struck with an idea or an image or a drama worth exploring. Now the work part begins.

“A poem is a made thing,” my mentor, Stephen Dunn, has taught me.  “It’s not just saying things you think and feel now dressed up as a poem.”  At first I was somewhat adverse to this view, wanting to think that the poet was the poem, like the dancer was the dance.  Self-expression.

Okay, finally, self-expression is the thing.  But only as long as you keep in mind that, in terms of a quality made poem, your sentiments don’t count.  Leave them out.  Unusual, or radical, or noble sentiments are especially worthless without strong counterpoints.  And what you perceive as your own virtues surely will be in the way of the poem’s progress.

The self- expression of strong feelings, as well, are highly suspect.  Understatement is the better way to go.  A good example of this can be found in Robert Frost’s “Out, Out,” in which a boy dies in a buzz saw accident. “No more to build on there,” says the speaker.  “And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

A certain neutrality in you for the poem to flow through is the best of all possible worlds.  .  Finally, it’s not even your poem.  Lots of times it will start out in one direction and end up going the opposite way.  In short, the poem-in-progress will tell you what it wants to say, if you can get out of its way.  (As I suspect the great dancer finally is the vehicle of the dance, rather than the other way around.)

Finding a starting place is a blessing, but you don’t have to stay true to it.  “If you get stuck, say the opposite,” Stephen says.  Try it out.  It may come to nothing, but he knows that his poems come alive at the moment they surprise him and his original intentions.

“Sound” is a big clue as to a poem’s progress, or lack thereof.  If the sound is off, Stephen takes it as a sign that other things haven’t come together yet.  That was a strange idea to me upon first hearing it — that there’s an intimate connection between the sense and sound of a poem.  But slowly, over time, I’ve come to trust exactly that.

Life presents us with so many ironies.  The process is the product….  To find your life, you have to lose it…. To become deeply spontaneous requires hard work….  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the more spontaneous a poem feels to a reader, the longer it has been labored by the poet.  In my last poem, “Reading Whitman at Dusk,” only four lines, which appear near the end, remain from the first draft.


My nights are fine, dear poet.

I dream and walk in half worlds

under the stars and black holes

where thinking takes a breath.


And in the first stanza, I knew had a good rhyme in “existed” and “fished in,” which I kept though a myriad of revisions.  It was those four lines and that one rhyme that made me feel I had a potential poem worth reeling in, but the version below would be barely recognizable as the poem it started out to be.

Nonetheless, through all the revisions, I’ve  been in my happy place in that I felt I had a poem worth working on.  It didn’t matter to me how long it took.  The draft below is probably thirty-some revisions later than the one which appeared as a blog a couple months ago, which itself was many drafts later than my opening attempt.

The creative process, huh?  There’s the work that you thank your lucky stars you still have in you.  And a good teacher to set you straight here and there.





When I was wild and young,

before I knew a poem existed,

I thought the rising sun was one;

and the mountains blooming

in redbud and dogwood,

and the everyday rivers

I waded and fished in.


Now the river’s fished out,

the mountain’s been stripped

for power and whatnots,

yachts for the strippers,

warm houses in winter,

progress, small comforts,

pain pills for the lame.


I’m on the doctor’s waiting list.

My hips are bone on bone.


In this unbending growing night,

as I limp along on my last legs,

are you still there, Whitman,

as you swore you would be,

in perfect health, untamed,

under my boot-soles,

electric, self contained,

happy to greet me?


Can you be well if the earth is sick?

All I see is dust and dirt.


My nights are fine, dear poet.

I dream and walk in half-worlds

under the stars and black holes

where thinking takes a breath.


Dawns aren’t half bad either.

Twilights. Dusks. The in-betweens.

The light of day is when it hurts.






  1. Michael B.

    Your blog is going great, Jim. Is it odd to think your writing is maturing with age, when age is likely the last ditch you have to jump?



  2. Debbie Adam Thompson

    Love the poem, Jim. All the revisions were worth the great effort. I don’t know why I find it hard to imagine that you need a mentor or a teacher, but I guess we all do. You’re lucky to have someone (more than one person perhaps–Stephen and Becky) to give you other perspectives. Sometimes we’re too close to our own work.

    In my previous job, I used to know a lot of doll artists, I mean people who are known internationally and have had their work cast in bronze, not little porcelain dolls. Over the years, many of them said to me, “I can start on it, but then I have to get out of the way and let it become what it wanted to become,” or “It told me what it wanted to be,” which for a long time I thought was quite spooky, but now I understand. You’re saying the same thing. I believe that this is what’s so very special about creating anything and the creative process, even though sometimes the process can be very long.


  3. Becky

    It came out beautifully, the poem. Excited to see you again soon, hope you have been well.

    1. jamesralston@hotmail.com

      Thank you, Becky. That day you worked on it with me was a big turn around. You saw a direction it was going that wasn’t working, and then I saw it too. Amazing how much we need other perspectives.


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