From Diary to Poetry:
Writing as a Transformative Experience

By Ellen S. Jaffe

Annual TPS PoetryTALK

March 9, 2013

I want to thank Valerie Nielsen and the Tower Poetry Society for inviting me to give the 2013 Tower Poetry lecture. Thanks to everyone who attended the talk, to Norman Brown for taking photographs, and to the people who sent me comments afterward. I’d also like to thank Eleanore Kosydar for asking me to contribute a print version of the talk for this website, and for her help during its preparation.

It was somewhat intimidating to talk to a group of poets about poetry. It’s much easier to give a reading, or even a writing workshop, than to talk “about” poetry. So these are my thoughts and wonderings, not a definitive statement. Much like poetry itself.

If you read any quotes by poets about poetry, you’ll see they/we can’t do it without talking in metaphors – that is, without writing a very short poem. Marianne Moore wrote, “Poetry is an imaginary garden with real toads in it,” and Robert Frost said, “The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places, as the stars do.” Neil Gaiman, a British sci-fi and fantasy writer, had this to say: “Writing is flying in dreams. When you remember. When you can. When it works. It's that easy.” And Mary Oliver says, “For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.” (I highly recommend Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, from which this quote is taken, for anyone writing poetry).

W.H. Auden talked at a reading about various things a poet needs to know: these include gardening, animal care, geology, astronomy, physics, even mathematics, in addition to reading widely, learning some poems by heart, and understanding poetic forms. In a 1971 Paris Review interview, Auden said that as a boy he spent “many hours constructing a highly elaborate world of my own, based on, first of all, a landscape....and second, an industry – lead mining.” He gave himself rules and choices – such as choosing between a more “beautiful” machine and a more “efficient” one – but he could not use magic. He said, “I later realised that in constructing this world which was only inhabited by me, I was already beginning to learn how poetry is written.” There are many things for us to learn from Auden’s reminiscence.

Poetry is a way of looking closely – intimately, as Jeff Seffinga remarked recently at the Power of the Pen Awards ceremony – at ordinary experiences, things (natural and man-made), and emotions. It is also, at the same time, a way of transforming this experience and taking us to other, extra-ordinary worlds and experiences. The central idea of this paper is that poetry – like all the arts – is a process of transformation. One metaphor for this is alchemy, which purported to turn lead into gold or into the “Philosopher’s Stone.” (Although Auden’s lead-mines were real, we can see this lead metaphorically as raw material for poetry as well as for material products, and mining as the first stage in its discovery and transformation). Alchemists were sometimes seen as charlatans, crafty liars instead of true craftsmen, and poetry does have an element of trickery, of smoke and mirrors. On the other hand, the professed goal of alchemy was to transform base material into “something completely different” that could touch and revitalize our souls and hearts; this is also what good poetry does.

Medieval alchemy had a seven-step transformative process, which applied to both physical/material and spiritual realms. The transformative work of poetry also has several steps, first for the writer and then for the reader. Transformation happens whether we are writing about external experiences (seeing a storm, for example, or eating ice-cream), or about feelings like grief and love, or when writing about war-scenes, political passions, or fantasies coming to life.

Steps of Transformation:

1. Experience to Thought and Words:

Sensory experience or emotional and imaginative experience is beyond words and thoughts. When it becomes language (including thoughts and memories as well as spoken or written words), it becomes a reconstructed experience – even a few minutes or seconds after the event. As soon as we start telling ourselves, let alone someone else, about this experience, we are turning it into a meta-experience, a story. Remembering (re-membering, putting back together) is not as simple as looking at a video tape. And of course, even photographs and sound-recordings are selective in what their makers have chosen to depict. Our minds select and exclude, colour and highlight. When we remember an experience a second, third, or hundredth time, we may see more and different details, we may remember more – or less – than we did at first. Sometimes we need a “trigger”: a friend’s memory, an old photograph, a smell, a taste, a song, even a piece of writing can recall an experience we don’t even know that we have lost or forgotten. A prime literary example of this is Marcel Proust’s dipping his madelaine into a cup of linden tea, and recalling in vivid detail the life of Combray, his childhood summer home – which led to the seven volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, earlier translated as Remembrance of Things Past.) In an example from my own life, reading Paul Auster’s memoir, The Invention of Solitude made me recall the overwhelming smell of mothballs in my mother’s wooden sweater-chest, which I opened in her room at Assisted Living a few days after she died. I realised that I had “mothballed” this powerful sensation for a couple of years. I was then motivated to write about these mothballs by one of the pieces created in the writing exercise accompanying the Tower talk.

2. Thought and Words to Poetry:

When we decide to write a poem about an experience – recent or long past – or when an image, a line, or a fully formed poem somehow “chooses” us and comes into our mind, we take this process of transformation several steps further. We create a shape and form for the poem, whether it is a traditional form like a sonnet, or free verse. We may bring two or more experiences together, in subject matter and/or in metaphor, as each one “kindles” and resonates with the other. (The metaphysical poets in the 17th century were known for “yoking objects violently together,” in Samuel Johnson’s words). In addition, we use language intentionally, in highly specific and well-chosen ways, even if our diction appears to be the language of ordinary life. Poets sometimes use language that is too rarified, too formal, too archaic to suit the poem and our contemporary age; on the other hand, we sometimes don’t push and delve into language hard enough, and use words and images that stay on the surface and are not thoroughly “cooked.” (This leads to literary indigestion – readers cannot digest and incorporate the poem into imagination and life). “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara is a good example of a poem that seems to use ordinary language casually, but in fact is carefully wrought, with words, phrases, and rhythms that leap off the page into our minds. The poem is about the poet’s reaction to the death of Billie Holliday; the gradual build-up of details plus unusual words like “quandariness” lead us to the last line where death intersects the mundane. I suggest that you look up this poem and read it several times to get the full effect. I believe that writing helps the poet transform the experience for her/himself; she is “mining” this experience, going deeper and deeper. She may realise, as she writes, that this poem is not just about her mother’s death, but about her father’s desertion... or her fifth birthday party... or how the roses in the garden still blossom despite a fungus... or her last love affair... or something still mysterious and partly-unknown. The process of writing can help us see and remember our experiences differently, and to ask the questions that have no answers: Who is that in the photograph? Why can’t I remember? Why didn’t I ask my mother when she was alive?

3. Form and Rewriting:

Form is also important. We are less likely to ask of a poem “is it true?” than of a story (Although, after reading a poem I wrote about my father, several people have asked “Was he really a doctor?”) I think this is because the form and rhythm of a poem makes the experience both more true to our feelings and less true to everyday happenings. A white horse galloping into the perfume counter at Eaton’s (from a poem by a poet whose name I cannot remember, or never knew) – this feels true though we know it is a leap, a gallop of the imagination. There is a kind of poetic truth, a rare element like the philosopher's stone (a substance both created and discovered) – which can emerge even when the narrative voice is that of an object: I am the grass, let me work (Carl Sandburg), Where are my bees? (Karl Shapiro, writing in the voice of a flower). Further, art needs the constraints, limits, and definitions of form; it flourishes by working within and stretching these constraints and techniques. And the form helps shape meaning, and needs to “fit” the meaning of the poem. In a workshop I attended recently (Piper’s Frith, in Newfoundland), Don McKay outlined a graph with the musicality of a poem on the vertical axis, the story on the horizontal axis. He said that a poem needs both these elements, although the proportions can vary; an individual poem may be stronger on “musicality” or on “story.”

Remember that “God is in the details.” Rewriting and editing is a process of further transformation and reconstruction, at a detailed, close-up level. We are shaping; fine-tuning; deleting, adding, or rearranging lines; finding just the right words, images, and rhymes – like tumbling and polishing a gemstone or doing fine cabinet-work. Rewriting has to let the poem retain emotional freshness and power. As W.B. Yeats wrote, “A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” (from “Adam’s Curse”). In other words, don’t let the stitches show. To do that, we have to be good at sewing. (Sewing, cooking, gardening, building, dreaming, making art – perhaps these are the alchemy of everyday life.)

4. Transformation for the Reader:

When the poem is ready as it can ever be to go out into the world, in print or a reading, it undergoes still more transformation, now by the reader/listener. Reading or hearing the poem allows you to re-feel, reshape, rethink your own experiences, taking in the experience of the poem and noticing the associations and feelings it evokes for you. Does it cause prickles on the back of your neck, even if you don’t know what it “means.” (Archibald MacLeish wrote, “A poem should not mean but be” – Ars Poetica) “Meaning” could be the subject of an entire lecture; for now, let us agree that the meaning is a kind of collaborative work between the reader and the poem, just as the meaning for the writer comes in the act of writing (wrighting/crafting/struggling with) the poem. There is no one “right” way to write, and not really a right way to read – although it is important to take meanings from the words, sounds, images, and rhythms contained in poem, not simply over-write it. In reading and re-reading a poem, in letting it become part of your experience, you will draw your own meanings from it. Once you have read this poem (or heard that story), you cannot forget it, as Thomas King wrote (CBC Massey lectures, 2003: The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative). You might even be inspired to write a poem in response – continuing the process.


Thinking and talking about poetry reminds me of the Moliere character who discovered he had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it. Most of us, as poets and writers, instinctively take our experience and “do something with it” to write a poem. In this talk, I have tried to find words for this process, which is intuitive and conscious, magical and down-to-earth.

After the formal part of the talk, I led the group in a writing exercise which helped us experience first-hand this process of transformation.

Writing Exercise:

For this exercise, I asked each person to write down a smell that he or she remembered; it could be pleasant or unpleasant. They could add a sentence or two about the context, if necessary. They then passed their paper to the person on their left, and this second person used the “prompt” of the words about smell to write his or her own poem, drawing on her own associations to that smell and thus transforming the first person’s experience. The results were very interesting, often moving, sometimes funny, and showed how we share ideas and associations and also have our own personal connections to a given subject (lemons or chicken coops, lilacs or mothballs).

Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to explore this subject with you. Please feel free to contact me with your thoughts and responses.

Ellen S. Jaffe
Hamilton, Ontario

  more PROSE about Poetry . . .