Poet Tom Daley on Finding the Universal Through the Particular

This quote is excerpted from an interview with poet and writing teacher Tom Daley in the April 2009 newsletter from Cervena Barva Press. Daley teaches at several schools in the Boston area and is a member of the faculty of the Online School of Poetry.

I think the most important lesson a writer finding her or his way can learn is the value of one’s own experience of the world as one is framing poems and prose pieces. Many writers come to the first couple of workshops with work that marches in the heavy boots of abstraction and generalization. I always hear some wrongheaded phantom whispering over their shoulder “No one would be interested in your story or your observation. You need to be universal to be understood.” I suggest that that they consider the old Russian proverb, “Taste mouthfuls–taste the ocean.” Or the adage (I think it is Paul Valery’s) “It is a thousand times easier to be profound than it is to be precise.” Precision comes from an acuity of perception, from giving expression to the individual genius that inhabits all mentally competent human beings, from mining the rich lodes of our unique experience in the world. This is the first and sometimes most difficult lesson to teach, because it involves not just a shift in aesthetic orientation, but also an acute shift in awareness.

His advice fits my own experience as a writer, and that of the aspiring authors who send us poems for critique at Winning Writers. We all find that our work is strengthened when we access universal themes through concrete particulars instead of only abstractions.

For me, trusting my personal vision tests how thoroughly I rely on God’s grace. Do I believe that God loves me personally–not just incorporated by reference into the salvation of all humanity–and that He had a good reason for making me the person that I am, with the mission He has given me? I’m working on it…

I’ll be at Wheaton College’s annual theology conference for the rest of this week, and will blog the highlights when I return. Y’all behave, now.