I’ve written about this before, but I’m always struck by how violently fluid my responses to my own poems can be. Sloshing between: Love! Detest! Adore! Blecchh! Hey, this ain’t bad! Good lord, what were you thinking!
And I’m talking about the same poem, mind you. Back and forth. I exhaust myself.
If I could take a moment in each of these buffetting experiences to note exactly what I’m enamored of in the poem, or what is making me retch, then maybe in some saner(?) moment in some calmer time hence I can actually pursue revision in some sensible manner.
Sometimes I have to come back to a poem after it’s been lit-mag-rejected many times and think, okay, bud, is there something wrong with you? I’m having such a moment with a poem that’s been around for a long time and for which I’ve felt fondness. But I’m wondering if it is really nothing more than a well-sculpted description of thing, and never transcends itself.
Basically it says, Here’s a thing, and here’s how another thing is like the thing. I mean, it’s well said. But it’s not really reaching toward anything other than itself. I feel sad for it.
Maybe it’s in the imagist tradition, I say to myself. (Per Pound: “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”) Yeah, okay. Maybe. But in truth I’ve rarely found poetry in the imagist tradition very interesting. Sometimes, yes, but it’s not my favorite approach to poetry.
No matter how lovely, the thing seems to remain just a thing with a bunch of words plastered on it.
What was I thinking about when I wrote it, lo these many years ago? Surely I can touch those few adverbs, the images, and make contact with that person who wrote this thing. Can I tap into something from that moment, based on the kind of description I created, and in so doing write onward toward some more complex and interesting poem?
Or is sometimes a pretty thing just a pretty thing? Love it. Disappointed in it.
I don’t know yet. Not quite ready to give up the ship.
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.
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’m trying to write a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail and although I now have a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail it seems to be just a poem about skiing the Jackrabbit Trail instead of what I really want to talk about which is that something about the experience feels more like the trail is skiing me or I am the terrain being skied on.
I am both the dip in the land where a small stream moves through and the bend in my knees that takes me down and up. I’m the curve around the glacial erratic and how I curve around the erratic and yes some part of me is the erratic, this one, furred with moss and lichen, dripping some days like I’m my own little microclimate, my own world, rock and sediment and weepy. How is that? What is that? Do you know this feeling too? But the poem does not capture that.
So I take things out, leave half-sentences and space the wind blows through, leave some parallel tracks of where I’ve been, how I go, but still I’ve said nothing of this ownership, terrain of me, me of terrain, meandering through the great hummocks of rockmass, stringing marsh to marsh. I fail to mention how I stand in the bowl of one marsh, often in snowfall as if a globe’s been shaken, and I’m the small plastic form inside, or I’m the bowl, or the shaker.
I want to say something about finitude. I want to say something about endurance. Rock and water. The deceptions of snow. Something about my body in motion, the land at rest; the land in motion, body at rest. The poem utters, mutters, but in the end fails.
Filmmaker Agnès Varda said in an interview something along the lines of “I believe the surroundings inhabit us, guide us.”
This is no circular route. I go out. I come home. Muscle and bone and panting breath. Broken rhythms. Mute mountains. Sky blinks. Snows covers everything quietly. Light glints on blown snow, disappears. The lines of my passage disappear. Highlight. Delete.
Once again, that wonderful site Brainpickings offered up something that got me thinking. This is a quote from Alexandra Horowitz from her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes: “Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound — but to function, we have to ignore some of it.”
Artists (and I include writers in that category, even though we’re not always; plus I am always bemused by the title of that venerable site and magazine “Poets & Writers,” but at least, for once, poets are listed first…) seem to be people who retain that interest in and personal inclination toward noticing, less inclined toward ignoring that wash. The act of making art is combining that attentive power with whatever resides inside that caused us to notice what we noticed.
It occurs to me, doubtless again, that revision is the art of clipping away everything we may have noticed in the wild world of detail but which may take away from highlighting what caught our attention, what echoed some inner — what? vibration? emotion? memory? some deep imagining?
I don’t know what it is that makes us makers, what notices us noticing what we notice and calls us to create something, something that records that electric moment. Because it does feel like a kind of recognition, or sometimes a reckoning, that moment.
Today on my walk I asked myself to notice light. Although I draw and paint, I’m not primarily a visual artist, but I know that light and shadow are vital in the world of visual art, so I challenged myself to pay attention to that particular input. It was staggering! All the twinkling of dew on jewelweed, the variegated shadows on fern fronds, how light works its way into the forest, and the astonishing fact of clouds. It was a day of clouds on clouds on clouds leaning on the hills or looming from behind them, and every cloud was an elaborate array of white and gray and gray-blue, dark edges, white hearts, a little purple, maybe some green. Or was I imagining that?
Should I choose to write about that, my job is, I think, to get down what I noticed, and let what is inside me that caused that interest to rise up and help me find the words. To match those details with something that speaks out of those details.
But to make art, I then need to wade back in to all that I noted, and pare away and pare away everything that’s not vital to those inner interests. It can be a slow process. Confusing, for sure, as for me, only time reveals to me what is really important. This is tricky, of course, because I become attached to what I’ve noticed, wonderful details, or I become distracted by bigger things: Meaningful Notions, perhaps, or Earnest Intentions. It’s also tricky, of course, if I want a poem that meanders, that gets distracted. Even that must be carefully managed.
With revision the task of looking is not over. With revision I need to get sharp at the developmental phase mentioned in the opening quote. To create: notice everything; to revise: focus and focus.
I’m puzzling over a poem and indeed it feels like a puzzle. Jigsaw maybe, as I try pushing pieces against each other and they resist or yield. Or remember Tangrams? You got a set of shapes and were challenged to fit them together to make different forms.
In this poem, the last line was bothering me. It felt thumpy, like, “OKAY HERE IS WHAT THIS POEM IS ABOUT.”
And yet it seemed important in its own way, so it occurred to me to repurpose it as the title instead of the last line.
Okay, but that left the former second to last line just dangling there, insufficient. So I started shifting groups of lines around, swapping sections, turning sentences around, flip-flopping the images and ideas of the poem, starting in the middle, starting toward the end, restarting from the beginning I had started with.
I know the incredible satisfaction of occasionally getting all the pieces to fit together: suddenly, snap, you have the shape you’ve been trying to make. But I must ask of the poem: Is there a piece missing?
This is the challenge of the poem versus the Tangram, I guess. It’s possible I’ll never be able to make the desired shape because a crucial piece is missing, and it’s not as easy as getting on my hands and knees and checking under the couch. I need to identify the gap and write into it.
So at the moment, for all my shifting and switching, the poem looks — instead of like a good solid square or a kitty or bunny — like a gappy rhombus in a hat.
My life is one long ebb and flow of thinking-I-know-stuff/realizing-I-don’t/thinking-I know-stuff/realizing-I-don’t. Sometimes the tide feels exhausting. Sometimes exhilarating.
I’m talking (mostly) about writing and poetry here. The effect of the waves is humbling/humiliating. And it goes, and I go, on and on.
Just recently I was in a conversation about the revision process and following the energy of a poem; that is, feeling the lines that have strength and movement in them and taking out or revising all the lines that don’t meet and match that energy. But then the author of the poem under observation said something like, “But I want the rest of the poem to lead up to that moment. Without the lead-in, I’ve lost the journey.” And I remembered another conversation in which someone said about the critique process something like, “But you have to understand the poet’s intentions for the poem, you can’t just wade in with advice.” Then I wondered about myself: do I always know what my intentions are?
(And all this is why for many many years I have avoided critiquing other people’s poems unless they are friends and specifically ask. And even then sometimes I avoid it. Because inevitably I get tangled up in that tide, water up my nose.)
What if where the good strong energy in a poem is not where you want it to be, is at odds with your intentions for the enterprise, if you know what your intentions are? Do you follow the energy, or the intention? Do you tug on the energy to serve the intention, or give up on intention to serve the energy?
Does a poem have the space for an ebb and flow of energy?
Does the reader? Maybe a little bit. But the reader doesn’t give a shit about the poet’s intention, unless it’s either completely unclear or condescendingly clear. In between, it’s all about the reading adventure. Isn’t it? Or is that just me, all impatience and huff?
(All this flopping around gets worse (better?) when I’m looking at someone else’s poem. Plus I’m puffed up by the sheer power they’ve given me by asking my perspective. Ha ha, they think I know stuff! Then I’m freer to know more/understand less, to think I have a broader perspective just because I’m not scrabbling blindly inside my own poem. Not always the case. Often not the case.)
Do poems have their own impulses? Do they try to have their way with us? The subconscious certainly can and does, and to the extent it may slither out into a poem, well, there may be something the author can learn from what has been spilled onto the page. It at least must be contended with somehow, even if it’s deleted out and sent back up into the subconscious.
If someone saw my subconscious slipping, would I want them to tell me? Theoretically, yes, as it could be great for the poem. In reality, though, would I be able to hear them? I’m sorry, now, what was that again?
Do poems teach us how to write them, or is that one of those silly conceits that make what we do sound more mystical than it is?
The more poetry I read, as I’ve said here before, the less I understand about poetry. The more conversations I have, the stronger the pulls of the tides: I know a bunch! I don’t know anything! I know a bunch! I don’t know anything! And yet I keep talking, like the rumble of pebbles and the swish of wash, creaking call of gull.
So when last we spoke, I was surrounded by 10 poems all of which descended in similar ways to the same simple place. I call them my WE ALL GONNA DIE poems, because that’s pretty much what they all say. Ho hum.
And as you may recall, the big issue was that I needed them to fill out a reasonable page count for a full-length poetry manuscript. Some of you would say, and I do hold it against you, well, just write a bunch of new poems. Let’s not be hasty. Who can write new poems in 90 degree weather?
I started wondering if I couldn’t nudge some of them in a different direction. Alert readers will say, hey, wait a minute, didn’t you have a post not that long ago claiming that one needs to stay true to the poem’s originating impulse, stop manhandling it to be something other than what it became? Fortunately, I have no alert readers, so I can ignore that.
If poems can be said to have a turning point — and apparently they can be said to have such a thing. Much has been written on it, so I won’t go into it here. Actually that’s because I haven’t read most of what’s been written on the “turn” in poems, mostly because I’ve read almost none of it. I only just learned that a “turn” in a poem is a thing. I mean, yeah, the sonnet “volta,” but apparently all? most? many? poems have a turn/turns in them. I’d have to think about that harder, but it made me consider the poem as a path or, if you’ll pardon the expression, “a journey.”
As such, there may be certain points along the path in which another road might be taken. So I’ve come to look at each of these poems in this way, trying to catch just what moment, what line, what word might offer an opportunity for the poem to turn, to vee away or veer somewhat from where it had been going. What will happen?
This is actually kind of a fun exercise for 90 degree heat. Way more fun than trying to conjure up brand new poems. That’s for autumn.