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.
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.
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’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.”
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 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.
I recently watched Free Solo, that documentary of a man’s extraordinary un-roped ascent up El Capitan. Before I saw the movie, if I thought of his journey at all, I just that “wow, that’s nuts.” I had somehow not expected the amazing preparations he made, both with his body, and certainly with his mind, but also the carefully mapped, hold by hold, route, which he practiced roped again and again until he had every move internalized. Certainly this was a tale of an internal journey, for sure, both into his certainty that he could do it, but also, I think most significantly, when he was able to say, cameras trained on him, partway up the wall face, “No. This is not the day for this.” And called it off and went back down, knowing he’d have to wait another six months to try again, knowing he was tangling up the film producer and his crew as well. But when he finally did the ascent, he knew every move so well, he went surely and rapidly right up the face in a scant few hours with no hesitation, as a strange dance with the wall. It was indeed a kind of choreography he created.
I thought of this movie in contrast to the “journeys” described by two poet friends of mine who got it into their heads to each write a heroic crown of sonnets — that is 14 sonnets of 14 lines each, the 14th of which contains the first lines of each of the previous sonnets. Or something like that. Wow, that’s nuts.
But what struck me, in contrast to Free Solo, was how each of them talked about the great unknowns of their journeys, every step being felt out in the dark. They said things like “I thought I was going to start in this way, but then decided to try this other way” or “I thought I was writing about this thing, but the more I got into the unfolding of the poems the more I realized I was writing about this other thing entirely.”
Their journeys were more like the first ever roped ascent up El Capitan, no doubt accomplished in fits and starts, heading up one way only to retrace and try another route. One of the two adventurers started with the crowning final sonnet and backed into each of the others. The other started that way then realized she didn’t need the “heroic” part and just revamped to do a regular crown, as that is what served the movement of the poems she was writing.
It was exciting to hear about. Both of them found the form created interesting limits they had to figure out how to negotiate.
Of course, they also embarked on these adventures after years of careful study of the art and craft of poetry, and some poking around into the history of sonnet crowns.
And of course, El Cap had never been free climbed, so the whole thing was an unknown. For mortal stakes.
I guess my only point is that any crazy idea one might want to try is part dream, part incredible preparation, as well as part throwing yourself into it and figuring it out as you go along. Any such challenge is part flinging your body at a stone wall and your mind into the well of form and chaos.
My other point is how much I’ve enjoyed lounging on my couch with little ambition, hearing about other people playing out their crazy ideas.