Tom Eblen: Lexington poet's latest collection adds to his national recognition

Herald-Leader columnistJanuary 1, 2014 

When Jeff Worley was young, he loved word games, puns and puzzles. He was certainly the only kid in English class who thought diagramming sentences was fun.

But what opened his eyes to the power of language was a Christmas gift from his mother when he was 9: a collection of stories by Mark Twain.

"I thought it was magical how these words could make me feel like I was with Becky Thatcher in that cave," he said. "And that I was Tom Sawyer. He was so much cooler than me."

Reading led Worley, 66, to earn bachelor's and master's of fine arts degrees in English from Wichita State University in his Kansas hometown. That led to careers as an English teacher, an academic journalist and a persistent poet.

Worley has published six book-length poetry collections and three small chapbooks, the first of which won a national award in 1991. He edited the anthology, What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets, published by University Press of Kentucky in 2009.

Worley's most recent collection, A Little Luck, won the 2012 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, the latest of several national and regional awards he has received.

Like many of Worley's books, A Little Luck includes a mix of lyrical and storytelling poems. A reviewer once used James Joyce's made-up word jocoserious to describe Worley's poems. They are serious and funny, and sometimes seriously funny.

The subjects Worley chose to write about in A Little Luck range from an awkwardly humorous "facts of life" discussion with his father at age 13 to his first evening after retirement and watching birds from the porch of his cabin on Cave Run Lake.

His poems resonate with readers because they often are about personal experiences others can relate to, such as playing Little League baseball or coping with the death of a parent.

"He's a wonderful poet who has a terrific sense of humor," said Gray Zeitz, the notoriously choosy publisher of Larkspur Press in Monterey, who in 2000 produced a handmade edition of Worley's collection A Simple Human Motion. "He should be more popular than he is. He's one of the state's best poets."

Worley moved to Lexington in 1986 when his wife, Linda Worley, an associate professor of German studies, was hired at the University of Kentucky.

They met in 1977 when both were teaching university classes for American military families in Germany. When they came to Lexington, she had just finished her doctorate and he was teaching English at Penn State Altoona in Pennsylvania.

Jeff Worley said he quickly realized two things: Lexington was a much nicer place to live than Altoona, and if he kept teaching English 101 to undergrads, "I would start eyeing open windows in tall buildings."

After a couple of years of free-lance writing "that was amazing un-lucrative," Worley was hired as a writer for Odyssey magazine, which covers innovative research at UK. He became the editor when Susan Stempel retired in 1997.

Since Worley's own retirement three years ago, he has devoted more time to poetry. He writes and reads for a few hours each morning in the upstairs study of the couple's 1930s cottage near Commonwealth Stadium. He also teaches poetry classes at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.

"As a poet, it's been wonderful for me to be in Kentucky," he said, "It is so rich with writers."

After years of declining popularity, poetry is big again. So I asked Worley what advice he would give to aspiring poets.

He suggested they read widely, and not just poetry. They should write a lot of poems, because many of them won't be any good. They should travel, if possible, to expand their minds. And although writing is a solitary business, writers need company.

"Find other poets who have some sense of what you're trying to achieve, and form some kind of group that meets regularly or at least exchanges emails," he said.

Worley and Marsha Hurlow, who teaches English at Asbury University, formed such a group of poets in 1989 that is still meeting.

"These poet friends of mine have frankly saved me a lot of embarrassment, and they always make useful comments about how to make a poem better," he said.

"What I encourage students to do ... is to simply get something down on the page, some line or sentence, and see where it wants to take you," he said. "Then you can always go back and throw some out and polish."

Polishing through multiple revisions is key to any good writing, he said.

"It reminds me of the quote by Paul Valéry, that a poem is never finished, only abandoned," Worley said. "I am always writing new poems and I have got a thick folder full of drafts that I go back to that are in the process of being abandoned, or not."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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