How to write a poem a day

by Wolf Pascoe on November 27, 2010

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We may remember mostly the long, stupid look at the material before us, and then maybe a kind of slow, emotional thinking. That is a lonely, helpless feeling.

— William Stafford, from his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, 1963.

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I believe I’ve mentioned that we struggle with perfectionism in this house. Every time I confront Nick’s, I need to have it out with mine. (The operative metaphor is putting the oxygen mask on yourself before your child.)

I have many antidotes for perfectionism, as many are needed. One of them is the following story about the poet William Stafford. Stafford was a marvelous writer. His poem, “A Story That Could be True,” was featured here a few posts back.

Nick may not be ready for this story, so I’m leaving it here for him to find someday:

Stafford wrote a poem every day. His method was simple. He got up in the morning and wrote for an hour. Then, if necessary, he worked another hour before bedtime and finished the poem.

Once, a student of Stafford’s sensed a problem with this plan, and began asking questions.

“So, you work a second hour at night and then what?” he said.

“Then I go to bed,” said Stafford.

“Well, what do you do if the poem isn’t finished after the second hour?”

“They’re all finished,” said Stafford.

“But what if the method doesn’t work?”

“It always works,” said Stafford.

There was a pause. Now the student shook his head and gestured with his hands.

“Mr. Stafford, I might try to finish something in an hour or two. But sometimes the poem doesn’t want to be finished.”

“What do you mean?” Stafford said.

“I mean, what if you can’t do it? What if the poem isn’t good enough after a couple of hours? What do you do if the poem isn’t good enough?”

“Oh, I see,” said Stafford. “In that case I just lower my standards.”
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You might also enjoy:

Browse among some short videos of William Stafford

Listen to Stafford reading A Ritual to Read to Each Other

I love your comments and questions. Please add them below. I (nearly) always write a response here.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

rit shachar-ross November 27, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Hi Wolf … I am enjoying your words. Loved the story about writing a poem a day. I laughed out loud…and that’s always a good thing!

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Wolf Pascoe November 27, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Thanks for visiting! It’s a laugh a minute here.

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Dan November 29, 2010 at 1:35 am

Loved the oxygen mask metaphor! I’d almost call it perfect.

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Wolf Pascoe November 29, 2010 at 3:17 am

But that would be a struggle.

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Sirena December 1, 2010 at 9:14 pm

That’s a great story! I’d never heard of William Stafford, but I’ll definitely check him out. Perfection is certainly NOT everything it’s cracked up to be – take it from someone with many O/C traits. It would have been really nice if someone would have told me I didn’t have to be perfect when I was growing up – just think, I wouldn’t be obsessively cleaning the kitchen with spray bleach cleaner every night now….

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Wolf Pascoe December 1, 2010 at 11:11 pm

It’s never to late to lower the bar.

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