I’m referencing here something a friend said that I agreed with in the moment but now think I may disagree: she said the context of a critique should always be the poet’s intent for the poem. I’ve also preached intent as a necessary level in the revision process. But I’m thinking now that if the poet has an intent for the poem, she’s already lost the poem. “But that’s not what I want the poem to do” is a phrase I hear — and say — in response sometimes to critique. But it’s that very wanting, that very conscious intention, that maybe should not be trusted.
Am I saying that a poem develops its own path, and the poet needs to learn to get out of the way? That sounds awfully woo woo for me. But maybe I’m kind of thinking that way.
But I’ve also argued that if you don’t know your intention for a poem, you’re in danger of writing too superficially. Could that also be true? Am I overthinking?
I think I’m perceiving that at certain stages in the development of a poem, the poet needs to move at first without much conscious thought, much the way I just laid water and color down on my paper, and then turned the paper around and around. What I intended was that somehow the colors would create some shape that would allow me to find something on the page to make a picture of. That didn’t happen. In the absence of that intended result, the absence of a discernible object or presence, I had to find another way. The frustration of my intent turned out to be a freedom and a way to discover something new.
The word intend is from Latin meaning stretching toward something. Sometimes in the writing of something, the process of writing itself causes the thing to stretch toward something unexpected. And it might take a clear-eyed view, probably after some time away from the poem, for me to be able to see what my own poem is saying, what it’s claiming as its own intentions or my own subconscious ones.
I’ve got a few poems in my holding cell at the moment, and keep revisiting them. They’re not bad. They’re not good. One in particular came out of an art exhibit the details of which I can no longer remember, but I know I wanted to write something out of the experience of that exhibit. I’m wondering now if I need to leave the exhibit behind, and see if the poem is actually reaching toward something entirely different. But no! That’s not what I intended! Plus if it goes in an entirely different direction then it won’t fit in with this manuscript I’m developing!
Tough luck, kid. Is this an adventure, or ain’t it?
I haven’t been writing much. This is not unusual for me. I go for long periods without writing much, or writing little bits that I discover later, or writing quite a bit only I haven’t noticed it. Mostly these days the notebook sits closed. But I’ve been willing to paint. Maybe not with alacrity, but I’m more likely to open my little sketchbook than my notebook.
I’ve been painting mostly from photographs, even though I know from my artist friends that that is frowned upon, although I’m unclear why, but one friend is Rather Stern about it. So I do it anyway, but feel guilty about it, which I figure makes it okay. Something about the efforts of imagination or something. But a photograph reminds me about how light and shadow works. I tend to be afraid to go too dark, and unsure how to maintain light, so a photograph keeps me working forward on those fronts.
Anyway, after reading about one artist’s more freeform approach of putting down water and color and then finding an image in the patterns it made and enhancing it, I decided to try that. Rather than doing my usual wet onto dry, I wet the paper well, added color, and a bit more, then rewet and added a new color, turned the paper around so the colors veered and wandered. I contemplated that for a bit, liking the soft hues. I wanted some darker stuff, so I did some spattering. For some reason, that didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to fold the paper in half, like little kids do to make those butterfly-sort-of pictures. Disaster. My spatters turned into pale squashes, and now my paper had a fold in the middle of it. Contemplated that. I still liked the colors and had just received a card that had a cutout garden on top of shiny paper, so I thought to do something like that, and dismantled the card and laid the cutout on top of my paint. Ick. What I really wanted was the opposite — I wanted the flowers to be cut out and the background intact, but I had no interest in the persnickety Xacto knife requirements of such a thing.
More brooding. In the end I turned to my usual go-to, my pen. I lack a very fine-point brush, so I end up using my pen often to outline things in my paintings. I scrawled some squiggly flower and leaf and grass shapes on top of my colors. I quite liked it, and thought to myself, “Well, that was an adventure.”
And I thought what a wonderfully human moment that was, a moment of contemplation of the past, its frustrations and questions, coming out the other side appreciating the, dare I put it, “journey.” I suppose it’s possible that the maple tree by my house comes through a windstorm, boughs intact, and has some equivalent sigh of satisfaction. But it seems like a very human thing. And it occurs to me that my writing efforts would also benefit from that kind of shake-up, of venturing into unfamiliar methods. Unknown, unknowing, trying this and that, contemplating, folding, turning upside down, mopping up spilled words, doodling. I’d like to look up from a writing session and think, “Well, that was an adventure.”
It’s interesting to go back to old poems. I find I do not have the urge to revise them, nor do I read them with critical eye at all. They were the poems of a moment, a time in my development as a person and a poet. I see them with fondness and appreciation of the places my mind was at, the things I was trying to get at that interested me at the time. They are old friends, flawed and familiar, yet made a bit strange through time. I presume they look at me in the same way.
Here are a few poems from my old chapbook Rugged Means of Grace, which Finishing Line was kind enough to publish back in 2011. A lot of the poems in it I put also in Perpetual Motion. Here are some poems that got left behind.
Such sturdy substance at my source, one seed, but risen rosette, now this labile, sea- like self, I’m silly, frilled as a lizard. Unsolid, I’m salad. What the hell’s happened to my head?
You arose striated, cleft, and dumb. Became ribald with attention, your sex displayed. You’re all lips now. If I kiss you once, you’ll tell me everything.
There are feathers and things that look like feathers: a frost edge, a fringed petal, today a shred of sodden apple skin left in a bowl’s puddle, a live thing turned dead, turned into the leavings of a live thing flown.
Just some poems today, from my books. I can’t find a copy of my first book, a chapbook from Finishing Line called Rugged Means of Grace, but I’m sure I’ve got some around here somewhere, and will add one from that little volume.
There’s a baby in the crisped litter of a roadside wood today, made pale and lovely by an October snow. Then even the skin is brittle. It’s never the big thing but the fine and permeative that destroys often beautifully. How are we a thing that hates and is so hard to hate? There’s a boy tucks a note into the pocket of a coat he’s sending a stranger, saying “Have a good winter. Please write back.” A branch breaks, a lamp flickers, the dog digs at a flash of something paler than snow. A boy uncrinkles a note. What happens next?
(from Perpetual Motion, The Word Works, 2012)
The dark is shifting almost imperceptibly
toward you. I know that much of endings. As usual I’m mistaken, though, about what’s moving. Not the dark onward but you and I falling toward it, and sometimes it is beautiful, fanned in flame, and some days, as today, obscure. Hymn so cautious will lead you humming. I hope.
( from Glass Factory, The Word Works, 2016)
[While the day]
While the day is its own autocracy, I am citizen staring out at world, touch the cool glass of rain’s mirror. Color deepens then fades, a slow flicker as if I am blinking, as I must open the eyes inside myself to keep democracy alive.
I took a dip into the work of Muriel Rukeyser recently, a poet whose work I was only vaguely familiar with. I spent time mostly with “The Book of the Dead,” her documentary-ish exploration of a tunnel collapse and its corporate cover-up. It is quite contemporary in feel, though it was published in 1938 as part of her second poetry collection, US1. She uses research, reportage, and the borrowed voices of witnesses or individuals who stood in the middle of the situations that stirred her. Bringing home to the reader social justice concerns in a visceral way.
And I realized there is a direct line between her work and several other collections I happen to be reading at the moment: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ, and Travis Cebula’s The Sublimation of Frederick Eckert. All of these make use of documentation and imagination, witness and response, text and visual presentations. And they all, to my mind, stretch the traditional sense of what poetry is: From Rukeyser’s use, for example, in “Statement: Phillipa Allen,” of altered lines from a witness statement, set in the dialogue format of a play, with dashes to set off each line of of the questioner’s questions and Allen’s replies; to Choi’s snapshotted notes and scribbled Korean characters and a respondent’s doodled map of circles; to Rankine’s “situation scripts” making use of news coverage; to how Cebula’s poems, launched from an old newspaper clipping, explore the fictionalized life of the first suicide off the Empire State Building tumble down the page, sometimes in two columns, some words bracketed as if a photojournalist froze moments of the fall.
Is there music here? Sometimes. Is there form? Of strangeness, yes, and sometimes borrowed from non-poetry-looking documentation. Is there compression? Of vision, certainly, of focus, if not always of text. Is there silence, as weighed against sound? Yes, and often interestingly, insightfully so. How they take from and make use of documentation interests me, text dimensioning itself from text, like a 3D printer transforming code into form.
I must confess, though, this interests me intellectually, but it’s the other book I happened to grab in quick Covid-breathing-down-my-neck visit to the library that grabs my poetry heart. It too takes its cues from something concrete, in this case a video clip and some photographs. Ross Gay seems to be attaining incadescence in front of my very eyes with each new book. Be Holding is magnificent, as it achingly slowly tells of the fleet seconds details of an improbable dunk, a “baseline scoop,” by Dr. J during a 1980 NBA finals game, interspersed with curling and twining tendrils of sidebars and meditations on holding, on flying and falling, on love. This is poetry that truly engages me as a reader, a writer, and as a human bean.
I still remember the shock and betrayal I felt, not to mention the physical discomfort, when whatever little asshole kid I was see-sawing with jumped off when he was down, and I was up, and I came slamming down. It made me ever suspicious and I have been always careful with whom I see-saw. Well, the world of poetry sometimes feels to me like that kid — playing nicely then suddenly, inexplicably wham. And I’m down, bones rattled, teeth jarred.
I keep encountering poems lately I. do. not. get. Don’t get ’em. What are they doing? What are they talking about? Why has the poet chosen to do what they have done? What am I to take away from them? WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?
Obviously, I know nothing about poetry.
I mean these are well respected publishers and much lauded books and widely praised poets. So obviously everyone other than me sees something in them and I’m too much of a dolt to see the greatness.
No wonder I can’t get my poems accepted for publication lately! I clearly have no idea what I’m doing! I go along, writing my stuff, reading stuff, venturing my opinion about what I’m reading. Then wham. Who am I to have any opinions whatsoever on anyone else’s work when I am clearly so. out. of. my. depth. Who am I to be scribbling and typing and — good grief — sending stuff out?
Poetry? What the hell is it? Don’t freaking ask me. I ain’t getting on that see-saw today.
So I plastered a bunch of my thoughts about revision last week and the week before. But there’s a terrible secret I’ve kept tight to my chest. And that is that I don’t really think anyone can teach us how to revise our own poems.
You can try all these ideas and techniques. But there is no way to really know when a poem has achieved something close to its potential except by writing and reading and writing and reading and developing your own sense of what you want your work to do.
And by reading, I mean, reading like a practitioner. That is, when we meet a poem that affects us, we need to take it apart and figure out how it did its magic. And we need to do this over and over again with all kinds of poems. And we need to try the tactics, retry, try something else.
And I believe — I have to believe — by doing this over the course of who the hell knows how long, we’ll develop some instincts, some skills, and some confidence. And when the poem isn’t living up to itself, something in us will feel uncomfortable, our skin will not fit us quite right, our ears will flick forward and back at some sound that’s not quite right, some voice inside us will whisper, “Sorry, you just don’t have it yet.”
And we’ll sigh and unscrew the carefully packed poem, pull all the guts out, and start all over again, adding this, taking away that, turning the pieces around, and putting it together again, then sitting with it to let those hard-won instincts have their say, their little jabs and hmms.
I’ve written often over the years about my grappling with the revision process, ways I’ve approached it, ways I’ve been confounded, approaches I’ve read about and tried, ones I’ve read about but have been too lazy to try. I decided to go back through all the posts I could find that talked about revision and distill the barest skeleton of stuff so as to create a sort of quick-and-dirty revision cheatsheet. This is not to say I’m an expert, it’s just to say here’s some stuff I think I’ve learned along the way that maybe you’d find useful too. Or not. Whatever. Anyway. Here’s some stuff.
Remember: look for the shine and sheer away what’s getting in the way, or carve it so that the light and shadow work how you want them to.
Remember: it’s a spiral process. Start anywhere. You’ll be back there again eventually, but hopefully from a slightly different vantage point.
Remember: time is the best editor.
But here are some ways to break it down:
– Are the verbs active? Are they surprising?
– Are the nouns specific? Are they image-based? Or are they abstract or calling too much attention to themselves with their fancy multisyllables?
– Are there too many articles? Not enough? Could you gain specificity and heft by changing an “a” to a “the” or vice versa?
– Are the adjectives and adverbs necessary and are they doing enough heavy lifting?
– Is punctuation serving clarity? If you’ve eschewed punctuation, is that serving the poem?
– Is the tone right for the subject matter? Or wonderfully wrong for the subject matter?
– Have you read it aloud and does it flow? Are there sticky spots? Clunky sections?
– Are you paying attention to assonance, alliteration, onomatopaeia? Do the repetitions of sound work for the poem’s intentions?
– Have you paid attention to rhythm? Does it have an interesting beat and flow?
– If you’re working in meter, does it get established, then break in such a way that is interesting and that serves the meaning of the line?
– Are the line breaks serving purposes, in terms of ideas, rhythms, sound, controlling the movement of the poem?
– Do most of the lines have integrity or heft (rather than just being throw-away lines to get to the next meaty bit)?
– Do most of the lines start strongly? Do most of the lines end strongly?
– Is the white space serving the poem?
The Look on the Page
– If you’re using a form, does the content serve the form? Does the form serve the content? Would imposing more control enhance the effect of the poem? Does the poem need less control, a little wildness?
– Have you provided some silence such that you are controlling the roll of the poem down the page, in the mouth, out in the room?
– Is there too much information? Could you let the reader sit with some ideas by giving them some white space?
– Is there a place of energy in the poem that might show you how to trim around it, or how the rest of the poem might need to be energized to meet it? Or maybe your poem really should be headed in the direction of that energy, and more writing is needed.
– Does it start at an interesting place/moment/idea/emotion? Or have you hemmed and hawed some and the poem might be stronger by starting several lines down where things are really happening?
– Does it come to some ending so thoroughly that you can hear a far thud? Is it wrapped up so tight in a bow that it’s face is getting red from trying to breathe?
– Does it wander off such that the reader is left wondering why they bothered to follow along?
– Does it make sense; does it make glorious nonsense?
The Order of Operations
– Does the flow of images/ideas/sounds/silences make sense? Or does it make glorious not-sense?
– Do you ask too much of the reader to try to follow the leaps and bounds? Is there enough of a through-line of thought to keep the reader going?
– Does the title you’ve chosen really suit the poem? (Or does it convey what you thought you were writing about but the poem had its own ideas?)
– Does it do any useful work, like situating the reader, or setting a tone, or giving a hint as to what’s ahead?
– Does it add interest and vitality or is it merely sitting there? If you encountered this title, would you bother to read this poem?
Okay, this is kind of big. If a poem is an inquiry, you don’t necessarily have to know exactly where you’re going, or where you’ve ended up, but you kind of have to settle on what your intentions are and what direction you think you’re headed.
– Do you know what you’re trying to do with this poem? Or are you muddled and therefore the poem is muddied?
– Do you know too much? That is, did you already decide on your arrival before you even embarked on the journey? Where’s the mystery and thrill of the unknown?
– Are you trying to strong-arm the poem to go someplace it doesn’t want to?
– Are you trusting the reader to grasp your metaphors and the journey of the poem? Are you asking too much of the reader to leap over chasms and wade through confusing thickets?
– Is this a poem in which something is at stake for you?
Play It Out
I’ve made it all sound very systematic, but really, I find I do revision best as a form of play. Here are some ways to play:
– Rewrite it backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.
– Break it apart and put it back together differently. It’s fun to do this physically: scissoring up the poem and taping it back together.
– Underline all the places in the poem that have energy or something special going on. Take everything else out and start with those underlined segments. Write on.
– Take out entire sections one by one and see what’s left.
– Plot the logic of the arguments/analogies to make sure they are solid.
– Change the voice: if it’s in first person, change it to third, e.g.
– Change the time: if it’s in past tense, change to present, or future!
– Ask a poet friend to take a look at it and try the edits suggested, no matter how off-base you think they are.
– Try combining two poems into one.
– Write a new beginning.
– Write a new ending.
– Pick your favorite line and write a whole new poem off of that.
– Try a new title. Sometimes the gap between the title and the text is telling. Sometimes you have to write to the title. Sometimes you have to re-title to the text.
– Insert a diversion. Follow that diversion out — does it lead you back to the original poem, or to someplace new and interesting that is still in keeping with the original? Or have you ended up writing a new and wholly separate poem?
– Do a writing exercise starting with the thought: What I’m really trying to say is…
– Put it away for a month. Better, two months.
And sometimes, you just have to give up and start a new poem.
I’m participating in a lecture series about poetry revising in which some well respected poets share their own revision experiences and talk with each other about their approaches. It’s interesting enough, and good to spend a concentrated time thinking about this stuff, and I am trying to regard some old poems with freshly tuned eyes.
There is talk of the mechanics of revision — all that examine-the-language stuff, and the excess verbiage stuff, and the unnecessary diversions. But of course the hardest part of revision is less about what’s on the page than about what is not. What is hiding behind what’s there, or what is being denied, what has been diverted by pretty language. What have I been too lazy to uncover or too nervous or too blocked or whatever? No amount of moving words around will necessarily fix the problem of a poem that either doesn’t dredge up the deep enough stuff or doesn’t have the intention or power to do that anyway and so is inherently superficial (at best) or boring. Some poems can’t be saved. I’ve spoken of this before. Perhaps several times. (Here’s one: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2017/11/13/know-when-to-run-or-when-work-in-progress-is-not-making-progress-or-giving-up-as-part-of-the-poem-editing-process)
In the chat part of each session, people ask anxious questions which are really all variations on one question: How the hell do I know if I know what I’m doing?
And the answer of course is you don’t, and you never will. The discussion leader and the generous guests are too kind to actually say this, but I know it is true. There are no rules, no formulas, no standardized operating procedures. No quick tricks that always work. There are handbooks, guide books, how to’s, don’t do’s, but really, the horrible truth is, the only approach that can be at all counted upon is the try-this-what-the-hell approach. And then the I-don’t-like-the-way-it-looks/feels/sounds/ends up/reveals/hides or the yeah-I-can-live-with-that result.
Although now in retrospect, these poets eruditely share what they can now understand of how a poem came into being, but I promise you, in the moment, they each and all said to themselves at least once: “Gaaaah!”
If the act of writing the poem must be the act of discovery, it’s important to remember this: Many voyages of discovery ended up with the voyager turning back, having mishaps that landed them elsewhere, finding themselves places they didn’t know they’d get to, bobbing in the middle of the ocean needing rescuing, thinking they’ve gotten where they were headed only they were someplace else entirely but didn’t know it, or dead. Every poem effort we make is a voyage into the unknown and we have very little idea what we’re doing, can only control so much along the way, and might end up nowhere.
I’m finding myself lately asking questions in poems that the poem then goes on to not address; that is, the poem reveals that it has a different question it is addressing. My job is to recognize that the question I posed is not what the poem wants to talk about, and then either figure out what the poem is talking about or/and write the poem that actually addresses the question I posed. It takes some time.
There are no answers. There is only more looking, seeking, feeling along the wall for a light switch, trying not to trip over the cat.
I picked up Synthesizing Gravity, a collection of Kay Ryan’s essays, eager to discover what this brilliant poet has to say in prose…only to find the intro was written by another in my literary pantheon, Christian Wiman. Listen to this: He writes, “…Kay Ryan is…in some way native to…a realm in which gravity and levity are vivid kin….” Isn’t that amazing? That’s a realm I would like to move to. My literary Canada. He suggests Ryan’s purpose is: “…to light the space between mind and world. To light, and thereby lighten, the space between mind and world. To lighten, and thereby lessen, the space between mind a world.” I say yes to all that. Yes. And I haven’t even gotten past the intro.
Okay, now I have gotten past the intro, and yes, yes to many of these erudite little essays in which Kay Ryan thinks her Kay Ryan-ish delighted thoughts on poems that interest her interesting mind. I have had some friends in my life like Kay Ryan in whom I totally delight and with whom I’m always a little anxious. These are people SO much smarter than I am, totally idiosyncratic in their brilliance, and they just dazzle without being anything grand or fancy but just being their often small-seeming, darkly quietly brilliant selves. And I’m anxious that they find me likable and never discover the dolt I am. This is what Kay Ryan would be like if I could be her friend. And I would love to be her friend. Or at least her roommate at an AWP conference, about which she devotes one hilarious essay, her reluctant attendance at an AWP as a visiting alien, wide-eyed and exhausted by the planet-change.
Here is something she says, in the context of considering a Robert Frost poem, but so relevant to the poetry writing process in general, I think, and relevant to a discussion I had recently with a poet friend. About her spare, crystalline poems, which I often find engimatic, I’m constantly asking basically, “Can you tell us just a little bit more?” Ryan says: “The amount you need to say is so hard to gauge. How much can you not say, and something will still have the charge of the unsaid? There is a point at which what is said is too pale, or frail, one fears, to tip the mind into the unsaid. And the reason for the pallor might not be punctilio but a genuine failure of force.”
I had to look up “punctilio” (“a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure”) and in so doing sort of lost track of things, but she’s addressing, I believe, choice-making — how to choose the words/syntax/form that will carry the greatest resonance, undone by either too much or too little actual information.
Here, from another essay, this one considering William Carlos Williams, she comes at the same question from the other end: “How much can you take away? It’s always a question. Or maybe it’s exactly the wrong question, posed like that. If you think you are taking away, then you probably are — diminishing something. You have to be looking for something, feeling for the contours of the thing inside the distractions, trying to add just a little bit moreto what you know.”
All this is to say that Kay Ryan is a delightful essayorial companion, and I’m enjoying this collection without the anxiety of worrying about whether she is enjoying me.