P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No.35 - April 2019
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2019 April No.35
Revision as Pain
Revision as Pain
Around 1992 some scholars announced finding a recording of what may be the voice of Walt Whitman. If authentic, it would be the only known recording. The story goes that Thomas Edison, who made a number of wax cylinder recordings of famous individuals (such as British Poet Laureate Tennyson) captured Whitman reading in about 1888, four years before his death. In the fragment that survives, a voice declaims these lines of an obscure late poem titled simply “America”:
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love.
Everything about this recording has proven controversial: its origin; who recorded it (some doubt it was Edison); whether the voice is Whitman or someone else, perhaps an actor; and more. Furthermore, the original wax cylinder has never turned up. All we have is a cassette recording of a radio program from the early 1950s that played what it said was the original. There is little other documentary record of its existence.
This is far from an important literary question, but as usual I’m happy to weigh in. My opinion, based entirely on my own insider knowledge of how poets think, is that the recording is authentic. Or at least that Whitman himself selected the poem, even if an actor performed it. I say this because it’s not a very good poem. Why would Whitman have chosen it? Easy: because it was new (it appeared in a New York newspaper in 1888). That’s a poet for you. He could have recited some of the best poetry in the English language, such as “There Was a Child Went Forth,” or selections from “Song of Myself.” But both of those poems were published in 1855, more than thirty years previous. Old news. Like any poet, Whitman wanted to believe that his best poems were in fact the ones he was currently composing.
Sadly, this was not true in his case. Whitman, like other giants such as Wordsworth and Frost, tapered off in quality as he aged. In fact, the critical consensus among many scholars is that Whitman peaked in his first book, in 1855, and that his tireless revisions of those poems over many years often made them worse: tamer and more conventional; while the truly great new poems became more rare as time went on. When the recording of Whitman’s “America” first turned up, few aside from Whitman specialists knew it. The poem just isn’t very interesting except perhaps as a glimpse into Whitman’s old age.
But if indeed Whitman considered “America” one of his better efforts, well, that’s a rather common delusion. It may be a necessary one for most poets, enabling us to persist despite any number of frustrations and rejections. Anyone who devotes a life to this difficult art necessarily wants to grow, hone one’s craft, build on successes and even exceed them. But goals are not achievements. More often than not, we fail, if not in general, then assuredly with many specific poems. Even published poems. Yet those who let themselves dwell unduly on the probability, even likelihood of failure may not endure over the long haul. So part of the poetic temperament is a kind of optimism bordering on foolishness. (The same’s true of teaching.) We just have to believe that our latest production might be the best thing we’ve ever done. How else could we go on?
Belief can be fragile, of course. Often enough, the euphoria of a night of excited writing fades with daylight. Allen Ginsberg has a wonderful line in “Howl” paying rueful attention to the phenomenon, one familiar to every honest poet: “who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish. . . .” I’ll show you my stanzas of gibberish if you’ll show me yours: just swing by my house some yellow morning and we’ll lament together . . . .
When I was in college, enrolled in my first poetry workshops as well as literature classes studying the history of this art, I remember scribbling in my notebook one night my sudden realization of the difficulties I had gotten myself into.
“REVISION IS PAIN” was my formulation of this stark epiphany.
For better or worse, even in my earliest scribblings, poetry was never a mere game or pastime for me. Nor was it simply self-expression. I’m not sure why, but from the start I saw poetry as an art, one with a history and rules, and not chiefly as a benign form of self-expression. I wanted more than self-expression. I yearned to fashion poems that would delight and instruct and dazzle strangers, not just my friends. Somehow I also intuited that hard work and study were more likely to get me where I wanted to go than that vague and unreliable concept, inspiration.
So I desperately wanted to improve as a poet, yet reading great poets for class was showing me, again and again, how far I had to go. The same was true of the workshop courses I was taking, in which all my deficiencies of vision and craft were repeatedly circled, X’d, and underlined. I had the desire to revise well, but no clear idea how to do it. At one end of the spectrum, the advice was often too vague for me. The common admonitions about “finding your voice,” “revising ruthlessly,” “taking risks,” “delving deeper,” “writing what scares you,” “freeing your imagination” and the like have never inspired me much. I sometimes doubt they help any fledgling poets, because they don’t indicate how such admirable things can be accomplished. At the same time they underline the gulf between one’s novice efforts and the glories of the masterpieces in the textbooks.
At the other end of the spectrum of criticism, things were often too specific. When told that a given passage was wordy or a metaphor was shopworn, for instance, I could acknowledge the truth of the criticism. What I couldn’t manage to do on my own was draft something less wordy or shopworn. I didn’t yet have the tools or the habits. I could recognize the brilliance of poems by poets such as Keats or Dickinson, especially with the aid of some fine professors, but I couldn’t figure out how to translate that knowledge into my own voice and insight. For the most part my creative writing courses didn’t include the kind of specific craft exercises that I later relied on in my own teaching career to help students recognize their own gifts and hone their skills. I was either “inspired,” or not, and had few tools to bridge the gap. At the same time, literature classes for the most part presented works as settled and intentional masterpieces, not as the grab-bags of choice, imitation, technical challenge, and lucky accident that I now believe them to be.
So what did help? More often than not I made what felt like advances in craft with the help of very concrete practice of the sort that creative writing classes now routinely include, technical exercises and rhetorical prompts that give you a challenge to wrestle with while not worrying much about theme or such lofty abstractions as “vision” or “risk.” I love writing to prompts. Both as a teacher and poet I became a firm believer in improvisation as a route to improvement as well as inspiration. You can start anywhere, with any subject or initiating prompt, then spin out words freely and without too much agony of intention. Then you look back later to see what might be most promising. Inspiration happens most productively at the revision stage.
Much of what happens in my journal is just practice, always. Most of it is forgettable and soon forgotten. But once in a while I get some traction and begin to write something that, even if raw, feels consequential. A lifetime of reading and writing has, I hope, increased my accuracy in identifying which journal entries might in fact be diamonds in the rough. It has certainly increased my fluency with language. So for me the essential first phase of revision is simply jotting words on a page. Lots and lots of them. Then the second phase can turn reflective and critical: I ask myself what shaping, paring, and alteration might improve the passage in question. Or, more often, whether or not a draft is even worth further work. Abandoning a draft is an important form of revision. But you have to have something to abandon in the first place.
It’s in the second phase of revision that education in craft is most helpful. Once you’ve gotten something drafted, it’s always possible to work on basics like economy, clarity, vivid imagery, dramatic detail, compelling rhythms, verbal punch, and so forth. With novice poets you need to hammer away at such fundamentals. But you can’t end there. At some point you have to think of revision as much larger than elegant phrasing and the rest. Such things are necessary but not sufficient. Workshops in my experience too often get bogged down in minutiae, and never get far enough into the bigger picture.
Much of the most helpful advice I ever received, once I’d mastered at least some of the fundamentals, came in the form of often stray comments about that bigger picture. One professor in grad school was talking about the pitfalls of large abstractions like “love,” and declared that most young poets should vow not to employ the word for at least five years. Then, in a moment I’ll always remember, he turned to me and remarked, “You, you should use the word ‘love’ more often.” In that offhand remark, he put his finger squarely on one of my own limitations: I was so afraid of sentimentality that I was avoiding emotion in my work. It took me years to figure out how to do so effectively, but the journey toward expressing unsentimental emotion began with that one remark.
Likewise, in another workshop after grad school, I brought in a fairly messy draft about my maternal grandfather, whom I had never really known. Though he died when I was about four, he became a kind of legendary figure presiding over my childhood. The workshop participants made all the usual comments about the effectiveness of this phrase or that metaphor, coherence of this passage or the wordiness of that one; and such things were not unhelpful. But what really kicked me into a higher gear was when the instructor asked me a few pointed questions about why I was drawn to this subject, what it meant for me, and so forth. Then, almost as an aside before moving on to the next poet, he said, “I have the feeling you have a lot more to write on this subject.” I pondered that remark deeply, as one does when you hear something you don’t expect but which suddenly seems deeply true. In a year or two I had turned my little poem into a five-part sequence which was the longest thing I’d yet finished. Eventually the poem I called “Magic Shows” became the title poem of my first book.
In another workshop, this one at Bread Loaf after grad school, William Matthews summarized the problem with one of my poems by remarking that it was like a cat in a bag: “all that weight in the bottom,” he said. He said very little else about the draft, as I recall. But once again the light bulb went off about a “big picture” issue I suddenly saw clearly. With his casual and witty put-down, Matthews had noticed how I tended to work up a head of rhetorical steam at the end of my poems, I suppose in hopes of compensating for a weak opening. So I proceeded to work on that issue going forward.
As every writing textbook reminds us, the concept of “revision” requires more than technical skill. Revision means “re-vision,” which is to say, seeing something anew. So, as in the case of “Magic Shows,” sometimes revision consists of exploring what you’ve left out. Then writing more, and seeing where it leads. Sometimes it also means abandoning a lifeless draft; in my case, this happens often. And sometimes it means striking out in an entirely new direction.
Is revision pain? Forty-some years after my notebook epiphany, I would put it differently. Certainly revision can be painful, because doing it well can involve facing hard truths about oneself and one’s abilities. And no poet who hopes to improve can avoid the sometimes unpleasant discipline of self-criticism along with the drudge-work of editing. Yet it’s just as important, I have come to believe, to cultivate the joys of the art. For me the biggest aid to revision, as well as the deepest joy, is simply regular practice. We know that great musicians, people at the pinnacle of their art, routinely practice for hours at a time. What makes so many poets think that it’s better to sit back and wait to be “inspired”? More power to you if that non-method works for you, but I confess it’s never made much sense to me, even when I was starting out.
So for me revision is not necessarily very painful anymore, in part because I have internalized a lot of the nuts and bolts of craft over my years of writing, teaching, and studying poetry. Frequently I can “forget” craft when I improvise in my journal, at least for the duration of the writing session. And thus writing can become—dare I say it?—enjoyable. When I’m doing it properly, it’s exploratory and playful. Whether I am actually becoming better and better as a poet I’m not the most reliable judge, I know. Like Whitman, I feel I’m writing now as well as I ever did, and probably better. But in the act of writing I take care not to ponder such things. For me that’s absolutely key. At the moment of composition I’m not interested in pain or self-criticism or high standards. Instead, I try to stay true to Donald Hall’s wonderful self-description, when he said he never got tired of “messing in the mud of language.”
Are my poems any good? Do they stand up to the great masterworks of the past? Well, I don’t know, but I do know that obsessing over such questions is not only agonizing but ultimately futile. Such decisions will be made long after we’re all dead: by definition the “great” poets will be those who are still being read in the future. Furthermore, if you dwell on such things, it’s all too easy to find yourself paralyzed, suffering from the self-induced condition called writer’s block. So I prefer to have fun with it in the here and now, which I would emphasize is not incompatible with being utterly serious.
In the final stages of revision and editing I certainly do bring all my powers to bear on making each finished poem as good as I can; and I make educated critical decisions all the time about which ones to submit for publication, assemble in a manuscript, and so on. And I try to remind myself, when necessary, that a “failed” poem is not necessarily a personal failure or even a waste of time. If I write ten drafts, then throw out nine and keep only the best one, that is very much a valuable form of revision. The nine discards are not wasted; they are essential parts of the revision process. Sometimes it’s difficult to bear this in mind, especially when a long time passes with few “keepers,” as I call poems I consider publishable. But in my best moments I know that my habit of daily writing will always, eventually, bear fruit.
There’s one further advantage to my method worth underlining, besides pain avoidance. Putting one’s critical faculties to one side while you write can in fact help you to delve deeper, and produce poetry that a too-self-conscious approach might not. Years ago I was invited to speak to a poetry class at another school, and students were given samples to read and discuss. At their request I found myself talking about how I’d come to write another poem from my first book, “Father Movies,” which began, as many of mine do, with a simple exercise. A friend had noted how seldom I mentioned colors in my poems, and that led me to write some lines in my journal with at least one color image per line. In need of a colorful subject, I remembered some home movies my father had recently shown me—and I spun out lines describing the scenes I recalled, contrasting them at time with the sometimes different scenes in my own memories of boyhood.
As the poem took shape I realized a number of things: that it was a poem about memory and its unreliability; about how one person’s memory can differ dramatically from another’s; and (ultimately) that the scenes in the film made me realize in a fresh way how formative my relationship with my father had been. The poem, as I revised it, became a kind of tribute to my dad. I said some version of all this in response to the class’s questions. Then one lone voice in the back piped up. “That’s all very interesting,” he said, “but what I want to know is what did you have against your father?” I was nonplussed, and protested that he’d misunderstood: it was in fact a tribute to my father and his imagination. The student then proceeded to cite a number of specific lines that, he insisted, contained a definite undertone of something else, resentment or more. I was stunned, because in that moment I saw that he was right. I’d missed something obvious in my own poem.
Reflecting on all this later I realized a number of things. Everything I’d told that class was correct: the poem did contain all those meanings. But the student was also right. It contained an undercurrent I had not seen. And finally it occurred to me that if I’d seen that undercurrent when I was drafting and revising, I might have revised it out. After all, I loved and still love my late father deeply. I would be reluctant to suggest otherwise in any poem I sought to publish. Luckily, my methods of writing and revising allowed me to let the poem say more than I wanted it to. The poem became more complicated, and richer in meaning, than I even intended. And that’s a further lesson in revision, at least for me. By not grasping too hard to the themes I want to express, I can sometimes, when I’m lucky, wind up saying a lot more than I consciously know, and maybe even say it better, with more complexity, more depth, more honestly.
Or so it still seems to me, all these years later. You can judge for yourself, in any case, whether my poem successfully balances tribute with implicit criticism. “Father Movies” appears among the poems in this month’s Verse-Virtual.
©2019 David Graham
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