A Few Words on Revision

Let’s talk about revision. There seems to be a common misconception because poetry is often short, it’s easy.

It’s not.

Good poetry takes work and part of the work is revision. You may get lucky, and create a poem that needs little tightening up or tidying, but those poems are rare exceptions rather than the rule. A lot of people say, “Whatever comes out of my head, onto the paper, that’s it. It’s a poem.” The feeling is that it either works, or it doesn’t work, either way, the implication is that further revision is unnecessary or a waste of time.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Most novelists wouldn’t let their first draft see the light of day, why is it acceptable for poetry? It makes poetry seem like the ugly stepchild of writing, not worthy of the love and attention given to longer works. Raw emotion puked onto the page isn’t enjoyable for anyone. Is it the excitement of creation – the instant gratification- that attracts the non-revisionist? Or the fear of taking a hard, critical look at the writing? Why not make the poem be all it can be, instead of kicking it to the curb right after it’s born?

Revision, Revision, Revision

Revision is hard, it’s unpleasant, and it makes us doubt and question. Being honest with your poetry is the toughest thing you’ll do. If you can’t critically evaluate what you’ve written, how are you going to take the criticisms of others once your poem is let loose in the big, bad world? And they will criticize. Poetry can be written for oneself, but really, what is the point? You know your truths. You want to share/inflict them on others, or else you wouldn’t put them down on paper. Good poems should leave your senses bruised and battered, and at the same time, awed. They should inspire you in some way – as a writer, as a reader, as a human being.

The fear of revision often comes from the fear of change. Changing even one line of your poem can mean altering its intent and message. Perhaps it’s meant to change. Maybe what you meant to say slipped out, but not in the manner you intended. Maybe you shoehorned the poem into a form it’s uncomfortable with. Is the real, true intent of the poem lying somewhere beneath the surface? You won’t know unless you dig down and pry away all the extraneous dreck that creeps into poetry in the name of ‘art’. If you want people to see the nuggets of truth, you need to scrape off the surface dirt and let it shine on its own.

Poetry can be one of the most painful writing processes in terms of procedure. You can hide the truths in a novel-length work, sneak up on them, and approach them obliquely. Even with short stories, the approach is more leisurely. Due to its sparse nature, poetry is pretty much a head-on collision. If you can’t stare down the fierce-eyed headlight of the poetry train, get off the tracks. Write something else. You’ll be doing yourself and others a kindness. Poetry is not for the transient, the dabbler, the weak of purpose, and those with timid heart. It may sound harsh, and it’s meant to. If you don’t want to work at writing it, I don’t want to read it.

“So although the goal is universality, the poem’s arena of achievement is necessarily constricted and the poet’s attitude one of precarious transparency. Good poetry thus produced is cleansed of dross, of falsehood, and everything extraneous to the representation of the poet’s primary subject, inevitably an affirmation to the ideals in question. “Good” applied to poetry in this sense points to its moral significance, which coordinates the poet’s psychological need with an aesthetic aim in the interest of creations that exceed a narrow construct of either. The cure of poetry is the achievement of the poem’s rescue from an accumulation of prosaic impulses that stanch the spring of feeling and idea.”

Kinzie, Mary. The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet’s Calling. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1993.

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