As a poet, I’m a handmaiden, a midwife, receiving newborn words into the world

— Painting by Omaste Witkowski

For James O’Donnell

Not too long ago, in the midst of a conversation I had with a woman at our local coffee shop, the lady asked, “What do you do?” As in: what kind of work?

I said, “I'm a poet.” 

She said, “Wow, a poet. I never met a poet before. I know poets write poems but how does such a thing happen?”

I said, as a poet, “I spend my days sitting by the well of silence waiting for words to be born; I’m a handmaiden, a midwife. I receive newborns into the world before the State, Religion, and the Marketplace get at them and start twisting meaning for their own purposes. So you see, as a poet, I can have no horse in the race.”  

The lady continued listening then came forth with a “Double wow.” Pausing for a second, she said, “Well of silence? What is a well-of-silence? And where might such a thing be?”

I said wow back to her, letting her know I would answer her questions another time, that they were heavy questions requiring heavy answers.

“For now all I’ll say,” I told her, “it’s a pleasing vocation, being a poet. There’s not a lot of money involved but the well offers an equanimity no ideology or cost-effectiveness scheme can equal.” 

I was waiting to hear a third wow but all I got, oddly enough, was silence; she stood there musing before me. I remember thinking, “This lady might be for real; she really wants to understand how a word is made flesh.”

And I will add that, if one is called to listen to words being born for a living — before the horse-racers get at them — that that work requires a special kind of ears, a special listening skill or competency — and all I mean by “special” is that it involves hearing ordinary and extraordinary speech simultaneously.   

You can understand how someone might get stuck at “well-of-silence;” the thought bedazzled my acquaintance at the coffee shop.

Some writers — as real readers know — keep notebooks that contain drawings, profiles of places and persons met, short poems, and the like, every form of which speaks to what takes place at — and the effects of — the well of silence. It’s the reflective part of a poet’s life. 

And the content of such notebooks — even of famous writers — ranges from (seemingly) scribbled notes to deeply profound thoughts. The late great American poet Allen Ginsberg used to put thoughts down in prose and from those sculpt a poem.  

And even though at times the words that emerge from the well of silence appear indecipherable — they’ve just been born! — I disagree with the British writer Lawrence Norfolk who thinks such thoughts constitute a “junkyard of the mind.” 

He says notebooks are no more than a bin, “of failed attempts” conceived in “widely-spaced times and places,” reflecting “diverse scrawls of varying levels of calligraphic awkwardness,” due to a “lack of firm writing-surfaces [and] different modes of transportation.”  

Such a statement — for all its purple prose — raises a million questions. The first is: Norfolk says a notebook is a repository of failed attempts — as if a poet or writer had volition over what he was called to listen to.   

Some writers refer to their failed attempts as “false starts.” For example, a novelist might say: “I started writing about a detective from the homicide division in a small midwestern town only to find out no murder occurred so there was no need for the cop.” A start like that goes into the trash.  

The writer, Jon Gingerich, said he wanted to save writers from all “Dead Ends and Bad Beginnings.” Indeed, he offered the reader a “Guide to Successful Storytelling Patterns.” 

So many people seem unaware that we all engage in storytelling patterns every day of our lives, that it’s au naturel, part of human DNA. Gingerich just wanted to save people from wasting time, from spilling the ink of life onanistically, and succumbing to a cycle of defeat and loss.

When a woman is in labor, she does not think she’s wasting time waiting for the baby to come. She’s all Zen, life lived a second at a time: no horse no race no false start. Biologically, she is the well of silence.

The late great socio-political journalist ethnographer Janet Malcolm — she really was a mystery writer — had a book appear a few years before she died called “Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers” (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2013). As a teacher of writers, she explains her use of “false starts” though there never was a hint of falsity in her.

Of course I believe there is no such thing as a false start: I write what the Muse tells me to and when she tells me; poetically she is the well of silence; she says everything I need to hear and when I need to hear it.

For years I taught a course at our public library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity.” From the very start, all the “students” were chaffing at the bit to tell how the well of silence had affected them. Through the library’s Friends group, they put out a book of their stories which is a wonderful guide to successful storytelling patterns. It is called “Tangled Roots.”

For those wondering what an entry in one of my notebooks looks like, I offer the following written on May 10, 2023; at 6:51 pm; in Voorheesville, New York.  


The note reads:

She said to him: I can only go at a certain pace. He said: You’re much too slow. She said: I’m dying, won’t you take me along?

He said: Lady, we all got problems; the river of life moves at a pace all its own.

And I, sitting between the two, says to the gent: This is your love speaking who’s on her way out, and all you offer is: Achtung!


Achtung? Imagine saying to a rose on the first day of May: Achtung! A rose; the first day of May; Achtung; a defilement of planetary consciousness.


The guy said those things; I was there, I heard Achtung.


And the aforementioned slow-poke friend of mine did die and left behind a raft of unexplored selves.


I can say more of her last days on earth but I am just a poet — look at my bank account — a transparent eyeball selling nothing short because I sell nothing at all.

Except for a few Julius Caesar books these days and for that I offer a mea culpa.