Here I am again. Is it spring, with its stuttering reenactment of incarnation, that renders me numbskulled, vacant?
I’m inert. Such a great word, short-stopped by that cul-de-sac of an -ert.
Like the newly snow-emerged and dim-colored field, I am empty.
I have not written in a long time. Nothing is on my mind. I am thought-less. Seem to have nothing to say. Have no idea how to write a poem.
No idea why I would even do such a thing.
Have no sense that I’ve ever done such a thing in my life nor that I will ever do so. As the damp field curled with squashed lines of old weeds and broken stems of milkweed, languid pale humps of grasses tangled in mud will never be anything other than that.
Anthony Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha has been an engrossing read. It details violence against Mexicans in the United States in poems that splash and splatter across the page. Set in landscape format, the book unfolds with white space and quick bursts of text, as if almost every poem is a kind of erasure, the text a struggle to stand against the white space.
A central poem is “Prelude to a Mexican Lynching, February 2, 1848, Guadalupe Hidalgo; or The Treaty of Peace, Friendships, Limits, and Settlement” which is an almost-30 page erasure of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which, as an end to the Mexican-American war, required Mexico to cede to the US all or parts of what we now know as the entire Southwest. The so-called treaty was bilingual, and Cody’s erasures show two erasures on each page, a dotted line separating the English and the Spanish. The erasures from the preamble and Article 1, for example say in English, “animated by a sincere desire to/end/the people/as good neighbors/There shall be/ America and the Mexican/without place.” And on the Spanish side: “las calamidades/que/existe entre/paz y/ciudades/sin/personas,” which I translate as “the calamities that exist between peace and cities with no people.” (Cody himself supplies no translations of the Spanish threaded throughout the collection, which meant some happy leafing through and discovery in my Spanish-English dictionary.)
Lynchings of Mexicans were widespread before and after the war, and many of the poems serve as witness.
Some poems bunch text, as in “Nightjars,” which ends with a flock of the word “before” or the cacophony of “this had a name.” Others play with the structure of text or interact with photographs. Official words are scrutinized, historical photographs are questioned.
The word “apocrypha” means hidden or secret writings. Cody takes history as a text to be broken open, and in so doing he reminds himself, and the reader, “Recall that beneath you, are the others.”
Many of my poems call on science in one way or another. I usually have some science-y read going, and that informs my considerations (Is consider from words meaning “with the stars”? I must look that up.). But someone recently observed that rather than centering the science, my work seems to center the self. (This was offered not necessarily as a critique, but of course the result was the same.)
I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering without “my” “self” in the consideration, what do I have? (It also makes me laugh because it’s also been suggested that I can have a tendency to keep too much distance of “myself” from my writing, by which I take to mean some emotional fire.) Or have I confused a presentation of a self with a presentation of some emotional response. I am therefore I feel something?
I take as my starting point for much of how I view the world “my self” as a member of the human species, and move outward from there. As I encounter the world, learn about it, observe it through my personal senses, I write. Without a point of view that somehow brings home in some personal way what I’ve been thinking about, I tend to find my poems veer into the polemical, clinical, or earnest tones I find dreary when I read poetry. (Of course, then there’s the tricky “we,” which I’ve written about before.) But maybe I’ve lost some opportunity along the way. Maybe come to put too much “I” in my work and not enough peeled eye.
Out of curiosity, I dove into the newest collection of poems I’m putting together and was amused to find that, besides a few persona poems, which I didn’t count in the “I” category, more than 20 of the 36 poems contained an “I” standing around somewhere in the poem. (Of course, as I’ve said in this space before, not all poetic “I”‘s are the poet; or, in some ways all poems are persona poems. Or none are. Oh, dear, I’m wandering into a wall of mirrors.)
Am I too much with me? Am I getting in the way of the reader seeing what I’m trying to show?
I guess every poem has its own requisite distance between the observing self and the observed, and the position of the observer in relation to the observed. This is interesting. I think, for example, about one of my all time favorite poems, a poem I find so powerful, and thrilling every time I read it: Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which although it contains a closely observant eye, contains no “I.” The thing seen is center, the seer is so transparent the reader sees through him.
I’ve worked to inject my emotional self into my work, but it seems like I’ve done that in some sort of a narrative sense, with the I as a character having an experience in some unfolding scene. I used to rarely put an I in the poem. Now it seems I pop up everywhere, like some Waldo-in-a-Box.
Now I’m challenged with injecting the work with the deeply felt response I am experiencing in considering whatever I’m considering, but taking out the “I” who considers. Now you see me, now you don’t.
I am mesmerized by this videopoem, linked below, the rapid flash images that nevertheless seem rarely to change, short stops in motel or diner parking lots nothwithstanding, and an occasional glimpse of the changing character of the landscape, but only a glimpse, as the landscape is chiefly anti-land, it’s the roadscape, mostly the highwayscape. We all know it. The blacktop, the yellow lines, the signs flashing by flashing by and the rear ends of trucks, stolid, unimpressed with your own meager mileage-eating.
The voice drones on and I mean that in the nicest way, because it’s saying interesting things, mournful things, meaningful things, and I drift in and out of focus, as I do on the road as the miles slip by and I think suddenly, wait a minute, where am I.
There is music in the background that is meant to live in the background, the way the radio blurbles along as if anyone is really listening, when often times it’s just noise against the great and awful silence, the silence of Life, or Aloneness, or Eternity, or The Grave, and the DJ prattles on, and the songs merge as if one long song and what you thought at one point was your finger bopping to a beat had become many miles before just a nervous tapping, or vice versa.
And arrival becomes a strange and new way of being, disorienting, and for a moment you forget how to live in one place, and you miss, a little bit, the moving road.
I skied today under a wide blue sky, and had the trail to myself, and was thinking about this videopoem, and also wondering, as I often do, what is the purpose of life, if life has a purpose. Sometimes I go down a nihilistic spiral with that question, but often I end up at Rilke: “Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate…”
Another book-length poem has come to my attention, and although I don’t think I have the effort of will and attention to create such a thing, I do find I’m attracted to the ambition of them. This one is Dart by Alice Oswald, published back in 2002 by Faber and Faber. The Dart is a river in England, and Oswald traveled the length of it, talking with people who live by and on and with the river, and has created a chorus of these voices and the river itself murmuring and splashing through the length of the book.
In a brief intro she suggests that all the voices should be considered those of the river, but I actually found that conceit distracting. A river, after all, is not necessarily just the water running through a channel, but it’s the walls and marshes of the channel, the rocks in the way, the grasses smoothing the bottom, the fish in the grasses, the woman laying a fly along the surface with her line, the man floating on a tire, the kid kerplashing in from a rope swing. I think about The Wind and the Willows and its river, a character itself, which was the river’s own stories blended with the wind in the reeds and the River Rat in the bank and Toad splashily sculling.
Oswald’s voices include a bailiff seeking poachers, fishermen eluding the bailiff, a worker in a milk production plant that uses the river water, sailors, birdwatchers, kayakers, the dead, the living, the water, its currents. In truth, the first time through, it was not an easy read, so slippery did it move through different tones and material, although the voice changes are signaled with a note in the margin. But the second time through was smoother and I was more easily able to ride the current.
Here’s a bit from the beginning, the source, as it were:
one step-width water of linked stones trills in the stones glides in the trills eels in the glides in each eel a fingerwidth of sea.
how water orders itself like a pack of geese goes up first in tatters then in shreds then in threads and shucking its pools crawls into this slate and thin limestone phase…
Not every bit has this level of movement and liquidity, but my favorite portions do. Here, memorably, terribly, the river takes a kayaker:
come warmeth, I can outcanoeuvre you into the smallest small where it moils up and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head…
Sleep was at work and from the mind the mist spread up like litmus to the moon, the rain hung glittering in mid-air…
I saw a sheet of seagulls suddenly flap and lift with a loud clap and up into the pain of flying, cry and croup and crowd the light as if in rivalry to peck the moon-bone empty then fall all anyhow with arms spread out and feet stretched towards the earth again.
That’s just a taste and glimpse of all that’s encountered in the book. It was a wonderful ride.
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.
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.