Guilty! At least sometimes. This can happen for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the poem really isn’t good and I’m trying to put lipstick on it when I should just murder it and put it out of its misery. Sometimes the poem is good, but that’s all it is and I’m trying too hard to achieve greatness. Sometimes the poem is good, maybe even really good, one of my better ones, but it came so easily that I don’t trust it, so I give it a good beating. Sometimes I’m just stalling getting back to the blank page and beginning the next poem.
Allen calls over-revision “one of the greatest sins of contemporary poetry writing” and blames the sin on our “listening overly hard to suggestions from a mentor or other participants in a poetry workshop.” He issues this warning: “Over-revision tends to tamp down a poem, to suck out its life, to leave in it too little of its original passion.” And lest we be overly concerned with perfection, he reminds us that “legendary Persian carpets purposely contain an errant thread.”
Allen’s words clearly resonated with my newsletter subscribers, a number of whom wrote to tell me how good it was to read those words.
And yet shortly after the newsletter went out, I happened upon this from Stephen Dunn:
I'm an inveterate reviser. I'm just always doing that. In my lifetime, there have been a handful of poems that have been finished without much revision, but only a handful. I often go to Yaddo or McDowell in the summers and tend to generate a lot of work without worrying about completing it. Then I spend the next year refining those poems and getting them in shape. A fairly new experience that I’ve been having is revision as expansion. Most of us know about revision as an act of paring down. Several years ago, in looking at my work, I saw that I was kind of a page or page and a half kind of poet, which meant that I was thinking of closure around the same time in every poem. I started to confound that habit. By mid-poem, I might add a detail that the poem couldn't yet accommodate. That's especially proven to be an interesting and useful way of revising poems that seem too slight or thin; to add something, put an obstacle in. The artificial as another way to arrive at the genuine—an old story, really.
—from an interview in The Pedestal Magazine, issue 41, 2007
This also strikes me as good advice and not at all contradictory. We've all sucked the life out of some poems, but haven’t we all also written the poem that quit too soon? Haven’t we all abandoned a poem without ever having worked hard enough on it to discover its real potential, its real subject? Haven’t we gone in fear of obstacles?
And then we hear so much about compression, about reducing clutter, cutting out details, getting rid of this and that. How many times have you been told that “less is more”? So when someone tells us to add more, to expand, to keep going, we might be hesitant to pay attention.
But we should pay attention. We don’t want to kill a poem, but we also don’t want to fail to give it life.
The March Poetry Newsletter included Fleda Brown’s Craft Tip, “Putting Obstructions Along Your Poem’s Path.” Brown offers a number of terrific and specific suggestions for getting your poem to its full potential. Suggestion #3 has been useful to me:
Once you have something going, some inclination in a poem, pick a book of someone else’s poems. Choose a book whose poems draw you at the moment. Go through it and make a list of more than a dozen words that appeal to you. Make yourself use them in your poem. Since you already have your mind on the poem, the words you choose will magically relate, one way or the other.
What else can we do to “arrive at the genuine,” that is, to discover the poem’s potential?
Here are some strategies that I’ve found useful during revision:
1. Instead of taking the ten words out of an entire book, take them out of a single poem, one that has strong diction. Then plug those words into your own draft. Expand / revise as needed.
2. Find the lifeless part or parts. Open up space there and keep on writing. Freewriting can occur at any time during drafting and revising.
3. Go into the right margin of your draft and find 3 places where you could insert a negative statement.
4. Go into the right margin and write some kind of response to each line, perhaps its opposite, perhaps a question.
5. Go metaphor crazy. Add 10 metaphors or similes to the poem. Keep the keepers.
6. When you have several drafts and feel that the poem is getting close to done, experiment with stanza breaks. This will expose weak spots as well as unnecessary repetitions and excessive verbiage. Break the poem into quatrains. Then break it into 3-line stanzas, then 2. Don’t do this early in the drafting as it may incline you to write and revise to fit the form. Save until the end so that you find the form that fits the poem.
Then ask yourself, Have I left in the errant thread? And consider leaving it there.