Semi-random Thoughts on Revision


I wish poets would say more about how they really revise.  Usually, they just try to impress us with how many drafts they take a poem through (see Mary Oliver and Donald Hall, for instance, for numerous forbidding statements to this effect).  Yet, older, Hall, who liked to talk about how poems went through 20 or 30 drafts, admitted that he rarely spent more than 10 minutes on one poem in a revising session, and that even a change in punctuation would be counted as a draft.  And Hayden Carruth whose poems are well-finished and often in some identifiable form, including the sonnet, admitted to little revision.  (Of course, that only proves the bastard’s a kind of genius!) My complaint here is not against the hyperbole of poets—one might as well try to command the tides; but that all of this mythologizing regarding revision obscures any discussion of the nuts and bolts of it.  “But how do you really get it done?” I want to say to more experienced poets, hoping for guidance in my own efforts, which often have been halting and frustrating.

I have tried to force a poem, for example, into regular meter since my poems tend to be loosely metrical, but find myself, by such efforts, immediately depressed.  Soon, much of what I like in the poem, seems to have been killed by such an effort.  Was it Dorothy Parker who said you must “murder your little darlings”?  I’ve never quite understood what that meant. Should one cut out everything that gives one’s work its voice, or does what she’s saying—or was it Lillian Hellman, come to think of it (or is that just because she wrote Little Foxes that my brain is suggesting her: little foxes, little darlings)—not even apply to poetry?  Anyway, I am finding that the only way revision works for me is to re-read my poem, aloud, with an attentive and yet open mind, listening for dead spots, places where it feels the words are getting tangled in their own feet, and then marking these.  Sometimes, I can think of a change that helps; sometimes, I just mark it for later reference.  Two things about this: A. I may count syllables from time to time, but not as a strait-jacket I’ll try to force the words inside, but only to get a feel for what I’ll call the poem’s sound body.  In other words, I’m listening for the cadence of the thing—the cadence of a line, a stanza, and the larger cadence of the poem—the way metrical, syntactical, and stanzaic units build and work together—and against—once another, like phrasing in music.  If I hold true to this notion, re-reading the poem without impatience at its flaws and without self-congratulation for its supposed strengths, which quickly obscures my capacity to see the flaws, then I can generate some fruitful changes.  And, at last, B. that this process feels a lot like fishing.  It requires a kind of active passivity. I am there, I am paying attention (otherwise, I may miss the fish when it rises or lose it off the line), but I cannot make the fish bite, or the word rise and ring. I have to hold my pole with a light yet firm grip, watch the ripples of the surface, and seize like a spring the opportunity when it comes.  This is the holding oneself open to serendipity. Letting the right brain deposit something on the shoreline of the left that you can use, like perfectly polished driftwood, or an immaculately whorled shell.  This is something quite different from willing revision as one would will the cleaning of a cluttered closet.  (Is a weak poem like a cluttered closet?  Hmm.)

Still, I have heard a few good tricks that can help engender such a state: check every noun and verb; read each line by itself, and I would like to hear many more.

Published in: on December 29, 2012 at 6:35 pm  Comments (2)