May 14, 2010

Revision, Part 3: The Honest, Modest Host

We must be honest when we revise a poem. Drafts can be written out of hubris, inspiration, flourish, but poems are most successful when revised with honesty.

Honesty, here, is not an ideal, but rather an expression of perspective. What may be honest in one context may be cruel or inappropriate in another. Most writers are capable of addressing many perspectives: the perspective of the tradition, the scholar, the critic, the character, the voice, a particular social or economic perspective, a target audience's perspective. Before a writer can “honestly” revise, they must first decide whose perspective they are being honest to.

I don’t mean to suggest that “honesty” requires a perspective or audience of one. When I revise, I do not imagine a singular reader. Instead, I imagine something closer to a classroom full of students. Most teachers will tell you that one of the most difficult challenges of teaching is to address and engage the entire class: that great spectrum of ability and interest must be engaged all at once. A teacher has to draw in the most experienced and the most novice of students with the same lecture, or exercise, or discussion. Some teachers profess that they teach to the middle, or the top, or the bottom of the spectrum of ability, expecting the rest of the class to adjust accordingly, but I’ve never had success with targeting a single bandwidth of student. Instead, I constantly find myself translating and reiterating as I strive to express something that is both accessible to the inexperienced and challenging to the wiz.

Make no mistake, engaging the perspectives of an entire class is not the same as engaging everyone. I am still seeking to honestly respond to the perspectives of a particular band of readers when I revise a poem. Honesty in revision is often about decoding, clarifying, and directing the original germ of inspiration. Though I've used the analogy of a class to describe a diverse audience, I think it's a mistake for a poet to create a poem that reveals itself only after careful study. Great poems are accessible and also reward closer inspection.

This complex honesty, this deference to the audience, requires the poet to expect more of the poem than the audience. This is not to say the poet should respect the poem more than the audience, speaking down to them as if they’re a child. Instead, the poem should make reasonable demands. Reasonable demands show great respect.

Put another way, the poet is the host, the poem the home, and the reader the guest. The host’s house may be modest, or grand, a one room farmhouse, or a maze, but the more immodest the home, the more modest the host should be.

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