May 4, 2010

Revision, Part 2: The Never Ending Poem

When I first began to write poems, I rarely revised. I would justify this lack of revision by saying that I preferred the spontaneity of a first draft. In truth, I rarely revised because I didn’t enjoy reading my work. This should’ve been a clear signal that I desperately needed to revise; after all, if I didn’t want to read my poem, how could I reasonably hope that some uninvested reader would?

When I finally began to revise my work, I inadvertently perfected the art of the endless poem. My process of revision was basically to revise as I read: to scan and tweak. As I read through the poem, usually for the first time in weeks or months, I’d pick at the language: the words, metaphors, syntax, and punctuation. Occasionally, I’d screw around with the line breaks. Then I’d pack the poem up and return to it after another few weeks or months, at which point I’d go through the same read-and-tweak process again. I might revise a single poem this way a half dozen times or more, and still never feel that the poem was resolved.

This, I’ve discovered, is the worst possible way to revise. The essential flaw in my method was that I wrote as I read, or, more accurately, I overwrote as I read. I restated the poem using language that I was presently infatuated with, only to later find those revised poetic flourishes tedious. The reason for this is that I, like many writers, am constantly falling in and out of love with words, phrases, and grammatical constructions. My most current fascinations with the language always seem the most striking to me. When I first write something, the language often glows like wet paint. But, like paint that has dried, the language later seems to lose its luster. I have to continually remind myself that poetry is more than poetics.

To revise successfully, I first have to be a reader of my own work. Not a critic, not a peer-reviewer in a workshop, not an editor; I have to be a reader. This is difficult for me. I critique in my sleep. I am a ninja critic, and by that I mean, I am more likely to think about the possibilities and implication of details than the present reality and effect of the work as a whole.

The first step of revision for me is reading. I read the poem, taking it on its own terms, flaws and all; I read it until I understand what it is reaching for, what it wants to be; I read until I am affected.

It is harder for me to read my work than to write it, but doing so saves me and the poem. It saves me from wasting time revising the language of a dead draft: not every draft becomes a poem. And reading saves the poem because it keeps me from just whitewashing every distinct idea or sentiment with a heavy coat of pretty words.

Revising as you read mostly results in the never-ending poem or the same poem written out a hundred different times, which incidentally, is sometimes called “a career.”

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