“Art and virtue are measured in tiny grains. Only when revisions are precise may the building stand square and plumb,” wrote the Chinese poet, Lu Chi three thousand years ago. Some things never change. Revision is still at the heart of poetic practice. At least for this poet. I tell my students if it weren’t for learning the fine art of revision, I would never have become a published poet. I suspect this is true for most writers. But does what one writer learns about revision, have any bearing on what works for another?
Last week at a conference in Vancouver, BC a woman approached me. She’d attended a workshop that I gave on revision three years ago and she wanted to thank me for the handouts from the class that she still refer to when writing. It struck me as odd that showing her and the other participants the messy, muddled, often embarrassing worksheets for my own poetry could be useful in their own poetic practice. This chance meeting in Vancouver convinced me that there’s something useful to be gleaned by looking deeply into another writer’s practice, even if it is only the pleasure of literary voyeurism.
First some confessions. I am a slow writer. It is not unusual for a poem to take me at least a year to get right. Many pieces lie in old computer files for a decade until I figure out what to do with them. And when I am working on a poem my methods can be unconventional. For example, I like to take my poems for walks. Perhaps I’ll spend the morning working on a piece and after a few hours get to the point where I’ve changed the word remodel back to reclamation four or five times. That’s when I know it’s time for a change of scene. I grab my clipboard, the poem, a pen, and throw on a warm jacket.
As I walk something relaxes in my body, the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other in quick succession gives me something other than words to focus on. I’m freed from the judging eye of my computer screen; the day seems full of possibilities. I feel foolishly happy. I am a writer in the world. I think of myself as following the fine tradition of Wallace Stevens who, it was rumored, wrote all his poems in his head as he walked an hour each morning to his office where he sold insurance.
So where does the revision come in? As I roam my neighborhood, clipboard in hand, I glance down at the black squiggles on the page. I read them aloud to the seagulls and pretend I’m learning lines for a play. I’m an actress or maybe a singer. And here’s the secret: I lull myself into believing that the poem on the clipboard was written by someone else. Now I can see those same words I struggled with for hours with fresh, playful eyes. I can see more clearly what is working and what needs to be let go. The image I’ve been looking for might appear as I see cyclists, dogs, and silver scooters fly by. An old man smiles at me and I realize the ending that’s eluded me is in the color of his worn sports coat.
In any case, the trick is to figure out how you can work on your poem until it, figuratively speaking, sings. The French poet, Paul Valery, claimed poems are never finished, only abandoned, but I don’t think that’s true. A poem is born, moves into adolescence, and eventually reaches the prime of its life. The skill of the writer is to recognize that stage of life and to let the poem be before it transitions into the twilight of old age.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to show you a poem of mine from inception to publication. This poem, now called “Reclamation” began as an exercise that I gave my students during a one night workshop at Highline Community College in Des Moines, WA as part of the Jumpstart Series. The prompt was simple: write about a place, past or present, you consider as home. We closed our eyes and imagined that mysterious place where we felt most comfortable in the world. I told them to remember a best friend’s kitchen or the cottage they visited one August years ago, whatever came to mind. However, when I closed my eyes all I could see was the dark hole that the carpenter had just created in my living room. This was my first year living in the first house that was all mine. At the time of the workshop I was immersed in a remodeling job: one ugly pair of cabinets taken out and replaced by a small built-in bookcase.
Draft #1, “Poetic Remodeling,” was written down in ten minutes. What struck me at the time and made me star this “start” as something to come back to was that I liked both the opening and closing lines. I had my poetry bookends even if the hardbound books themselves had yet to appear. The first line I’ve never had it before a place to rip up floorboards, seemed emblematic to me of more than just installing a new bookcase. And the last line, this space that’s ever-changing, ever-moving forward to it’s next demolition and desire, also hinted at something about home and place that I had yet to figure out. The fact that my own poem seemed mysterious to me seemed an excellent starting point.
By draft #3 “Remodel” had found it’s form and I had my line length of seven to eight syllables, further refined into couplets. There is a note to myself on the worksheet to “figure out what I’m doing.” About halfway down the page is a line about years of silence and hurt hiding in that empty space is circled. I recognize it as a place-marker for some emotional state. The language is abstract, weak, but what behind it is important to discover. As always, my mind wanders while I write and there is another note to myself “more food poems? Strawberry?” at the bottom of the page.
Finally by draft #9 the poem, “Reclamation” is beginning to emerge. What is it we’re seeking? Is the hinge that opens the poem for me. I’ve allowed myself the freedom within the poem to figure out what it is I’m writing about, to enlarge the poem from something about a specific construction project (green carpet, mouse leavings) and to risk sentimentality with a move into gardening, fires, flood – / aren’t we put on this earth to love? What compels me toward, or holds me back from, creating this illusive place we crave. Home. It seems natural at this point to return to childhood and the home my parents had or didn’t have. How their fears kept them from building or buying the house they dreamed of.
It’s draft #9 that teaches me the most. The worksheet shows my notes about syllable count, word choice (a memory vault or a memory in molecules? Fear of frozen pipes or financial risk?) and everything except the middle of the poem is pretty much fixed. I can look back on this paper and see that the form and the content are immerging together. As Robert Creeley said in an interview a year before his recent death, “content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content. They sort of go together is the absolute point. It’s really hard to think of one without the other; in fact, I don’t think it’s possible.”
By the time “Reclamation” is finished, draft #36, the poem seems complete. How can I tell? Because the movement of the work seems effortlessness, because the couplets on the page look good together, because I can read the poem aloud from start to finish without hesitation or correction. One of the reasons I choose to write in couplets is that they keep me honest. The weak lines have nowhere to hide. All that white space surrounding the words calls attention to each consonant and vowel on the page.
When “Reclamation” found its home in the Seattle Review, the editor chose it for a themed issue on the nature of home. And even though the poem went through 30+ drafts, it now looks like the poem that was meant to be. Begun in the deep of winter and completed seven months later in late August, I challenged myself to keep track of my revision process to see what I could learn by paying close attention to my own process.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal that summer:
“Know that everything you’ve written begins with one word haltingly followed by another ~ a profoundly pathetic lack of rhythm. Often, not even one image stays intact. And you call yourself a writer? ~ But let it live there awhile, even a couple of years, if that’s what’s needed, and the dusty fragment of an idea will take shape, the ineffable ring ~ What made you willing to scribble down the code with no way to decipher it, until something else comes along.”
Perhaps that woman in Vancouver just wanted to know that no one gets it right the first time. Perhaps she needed permission to dust her house as she revised, as Marianne Moore used to do or to work on a poem for sixteen years as Elizabeth Bishop did with “The Moose.” I could write another essay tomorrow on the revision process I followed for another poem and it would certainly look very different than the process for “Reclamation.” The point is this: revision is the difference between the adequate poem and the excellent one. It is the magic of a word positioned just right in a harmonious line of sound, it is the title changed and re-changed again. It is believing in your own poem. Get to work.