Revision and rubbish

Poem RevisedI finished Poem, Revised the other day, and it was every bit as good as I’d hoped. There’s one poet in particular that I’d like to quote: Deena Linett. Not because her revision was especially illuminating – we got the final version of the poem plus a lot of notes from early pre-drafts, along with her thoughts on process, rather than seeing the poem evolve through various incarnations. But it was her comments on revising and on the importance of writing through that I found myself nodding at.

“Those are terrible lines,” I said earlier and, wincing, again here: how bad they are. But I have learned over the years that you have to be willing to write them. You don’t have to show them to anybody, but you have to be willing to put them down, and the reason for that seems to me extraordinarily important.

You don’t know what they’re going toward; you can’t know what they’ll yield, until you write it. Imagine the line as a branch growing on a flowering tree – an apple tree, a pear tree – if you cut the branch off near the trunk, you can’t know what the end of the branch with its new little green leaves and buds and eventual flowers and fruit would look like because you’d never get to it. You won’t know whether it will be fertile or sterile. You won’t know if its curve into the blue air would be beautiful or twisted. Or dead. You have to get out of the way and let it be what it is, even when it’s ugly or terrible.

I believe this absolutely. So I’m a bit embarrassed by the really crummy choice of words here but I’m doing them anyway: I have to because I don’t know where they’re going.

Deena Linett, “Above the River” in Poem, Revised, pg 236.

tightrope walker by Kristin Smith

It’s so true. You have to write the bad poems to be able to write the good ones. You have to be willing to fail, willing to look like a complete moron, willing to waste words and time on lines that you wouldn’t tolerate for a second if you were thinking critically. You have to be able to suspend the critic until the poem has enough raw material and you’ve written your way into and through the real poem. All the technical skills you learn are things that you have to either apply after the fact in editing, or internalize to the point where their effect on the words you’re drafting is purely subliminal – like good posture influencing how you move, without needing to consciously think shoulders back, long spine, etc.

But afterwards (and isn’t there always an ‘afterwards’?) you do have to be able to apply those skills. And Catherine’s comments about revision got me thinking – how systematic are other people when they revise?

I do a lot of my editing informally. I have two workshopping groups that get to have a go at most things that I’ve written, plus two ‘first readers’ – a close poet friend and my well trained husband. That picks up most things. But I do also have two ‘mechanical’ editing checklists that I use when I want to be sure. One of them is just a good, basic list that I came up with for a workshop many years ago, and the other is the rather more soul-destroying ‘bastard edit’ that I blogged about a while back. But mostly I do it by feel, hoping that I’ve trained my spidey-senses well enough to not need to think too hard. (Bad poet! Lazy poet!)

How about you, dear readers? Do you work methodically, or just read and reread and see what leaps out at you? Show it to other people? Is there a ‘first thing’ that you always check for?

2 Replies to “Revision and rubbish”

  1. Since I write short poems – nothing more than a page in length – I actually never that that much to edit; many of my poems are as little as a sentence or two in length. I rarely actually edit at all. I write a basic draft, restructure it on the page, fiddle with the words a bit and then I’m usually done. If I’m not then I save the document in a folder and get to it whenever I feel like looking at a poem.

    I finished four poems last night for example that I’d started over the last fortnight. One I did nothing with – I just needed to be apart from it for a while – and the rest only required a word or two changed. I say ‘finished’ but that’s not quite right. Before any poem of mine is finished it has to get by my wife – who is both poet and editor – and if she says anything needs changing then it usually does. In the morning she read my poems and made me change the spaces between stanzas on one of them; I got off light.

    It’s semantics I know but I never use the word ‘edit’ in relation to a poem. I just think of the thing as a work in progress. It’s either done or not done.

  2. I like Jim’s last comment – “it’s either done or not done”.
    I think for me, instinct comes first. Although instinct can probably only come into play if you have done a lot of reading and studying technique. It’s like driving, you do it mostly by instinct, but not when you are first learning.
    The one thing I do check for is unnecessary words. I usually find quite a few I can cut out, particularly “the”. But that’s fine tuning, it’s when it needs bigger changes that I am more likely to take the approach of “read it six times out loud and leave it to my subconscious”. Sometimes major rewrites come out of that approach.

    I’d be interested in your “bastard edit” list, I suspect it would be really useful as the last stage in the revision process.

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