Uncommon Gold

Planting Zone: guidelines for poem-culture enthusiasts

The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say,
but what we are unable to say. 

Anaïs Nin

Prima Materia — the parallels between the Medieval process of alchemy and writing are somewhat striking, on reflection. The alchemist’s objective in working with the prima materia, that is, “essential” or “primal” material from the subconscious, is to distill “gold” from lead. Once mined, the material would be plunged into various solutions, heated and boiled down (reduced) and then Alchemist with Bellowsthe alchemist would blow on it with a bellows. Those who tried to hurry the process were referred to as “puffers” because they had a tendency to use their bellows too much.

Philosopher’s Stone
— remarkably similar to the writing process, at least for me, as I’ve often been accused of trying to “bully” a poem — to shape it intellectually (puffing) too soon — before it’s ready; before all the prima materia has been allowed to completely bubble up from liminal (or perhaps, subliminal) space. In my mind, creating the lapis, or elusive “philosopher’s stone” that signifies the ability to turn base metals into silver and gold lies in the development of “critical eye” or “lens”. Turned inward, this lens works and re-works, “sees” and re-imagines, (visions and revisions?) each poem or piece of writing with the dispassionate observation of a keen outsider.

— the finished poem, then, is like the non aurum vulgaris, or  “not the common gold,” having been distilled, at last, from the prima materia. Thought to be the abundant, living source of the entire universe, there are rivers of this sub-conscious material flowing just beneath everyone’s waking awareness. The quest, therefore, becomes how to gain easy access to it. Certainly, it makes itself known nightly through dreams, and in daylight through the “idle” mind’s daydreams, reflections, and/or meditations — when, in “free-fall,” the imagination is allowed to operate.


Exquisite Corpse — dozens of writing exercises are devoted to this: gaining quick and easy access to the rich deposits of prima materia just beneath the surface. One of these, called an Exquisite Corpse, is derived from an early 20th century parlor game. Devised by André Breton and his cadre of Surrealists, it has been adapted so that classrooms full of people from grade school to graduate school can play along, always with amazing results. Here are the DIY instructions:

You’ll need a piece of (preferably lined) paper. The corpse is initiated by writing down one line —

  • At the time, we knew the sun at the center was exploding.

That line is passed on to the next participant, who adds one line:

  • At the time, we knew the sun at the center was exploding.
    Solace, it always makes us stronger.

and then folds the paper so that the previous line is covered up, and only his/her line shows. S/he then passes the paper on to the next contributor, who writes a line and then folds the paper again:

  • Solace, it always makes us stronger.
    And it might take us longer

etc., until everyone in the room has been given the opportunity to add a line.

  • And it might even take us longer
    but things will be fine.

Processing – once everyone’s added a line, the paper is unfolded (exposing all the lines) and read aloud, and/or typed up and distributed to all of the contributors. But this is just the beginning of the process. To get to the “uncommon gold,” (the finished poem) the individual poet, working alone, must select any (or all) of the lines s/he finds appealing and work with them to shape a poem by heating them up, boiling them down to the barest essence, plunging them in solutions, distilling them, and blowing on them.

Raw Materials – will surprise you. Regardless of the age group of the participants, the reason behind the “exquisite” in the name summarily becomes clear when the corpse is unfurled, exposed. These are the last five lines of a corpse written in Ms. Hamill’s 6th period English 9 Honors class, on February 11, 2011:

Never trust a monkey.
For it can slip you up
and however fine it seems, it would bring disaster

with you and me and eternity amnesty
I hate being the last line.

Just for contrast, here are the last ten lines from a corpse written on that same day in 4th period, with a different group of students:

As I snooze, the bees in my head inspire me to find the frayed truth.
Many thoughts occur, like the many flowers they choose to land on.
And the flowers have yet to be watered.
They call me blackenitis, I love your sushi role
love? Love is murderous, hurts like hell.
A hell the likes of which has never been felt by anyone.
Nor a hell anyone would even think of experiencing
‘Twasn’t a blissful heaven,
because if you were a star, you’d be the one I’m searching for
There are so many sides to me that you cannot see.

Sandwiched between otherwise unremarkable lines, (i.e. I wait for you, but you never come/ I start to think, “Is something wrong?”/ I’d like to go to Hong Kong./ My best friend is Joe Bobenstein) hidden gems reveal themselves:

As I lick the sweet cantaloupe and fold the goose-flesh soft linen

for example, or:

your accusing finger slowly slicing through me like the godly rays of the day moon

so that the exquisite corpse in its entirety actually mimics the way the sub-conscious itself works: in a kind of free association. After its been allowed free reign, and the prima materia is exhausted, spilled onto the page, then it’s time to let the conscious mind go to work on the materials, exerting “intellectual control” on the poem. But not before. That would be “puffing”.

I’d like to thank Ms. Hamill’s 4th and 6th period English 9 Honors classes at Highland High School for hosting me on February 11, 2011 and for being such attentive workshop participants. Truly, they possess and shared non aurum vulgaris (not the common gold) with me that day – and I have the exquisite corpses as proof.


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