Sprung a few leaks; or, Revis(it)ing Older Poems

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.

Barrelin’ down the boulevard; or, One Last Thing About Revision (This Week, Anyway)

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.

Good luck.