Monthly Archives: October 2020

6 posts

Annotations of a Chapter on Revision: Part II


As a follow-up to the post before this, here are the remaining annotations I made in the “Revision” chapter of Stephen Dobyns’ estimable book, Next Word, Better Word.

  • “Rilke said in a letter, during the writing of New Poems, that subject matter is always pretext.”
  • “A different sort of change of perspective is to write in other forms, especially sonnets, but also villanelles.”
  • “…in one’s readings, one should also seek out different perspectives, and read for contrast: contemporary, modern, nineteenth-century poems and before, and poems in translation from any language. To read only contemporary American poetry limits one’s sense of possibility.”
  • “When one changes from first to third [point of view], it puts emphasis on details that might have gotten short shrift when the poem was in first person.”
  • “…the poem may have a vague you who might be lover, mother, father, or friend. Such a usage only confuses the reader. Putting the poem in third person can clarify the nature of that you and help to show where necessary information is missing.”
  • “The Belgian novelist Georges Simenon once described his revision process as going through the manuscript and cutting out everything he thought beautiful, by which he meant anything self-indulgent. Be suspicious of what you consider the most successful parts of the poem. Just because a line is well written doesn’t mean it’s necessary.”
  • “The poem, among other things, is a piece of theater. That, too, needs to be reflected in the writing. Lines should have interesting words.”
  • “One’s use of small words — conjunctions, prepositions, articles, pronouns, and so on — may be necessary to form unaccented syllables to set against accented syllables, but a line made up mostly of small uninteresting words saps the poem’s energy. In addition, each line has to contain within it a reason to read the next line.”
  • “One must constantly go over one’s word choices to see if they connote or suggest a meaning one doesn’t intend.”
  • “In a classical sentence the most important words are the final words. This also creates energy as we try to anticipate what will happen. Are important words revealed too early in the sentence?”
  • “Likewise, the writer should restate his or her sentence in its simplest form — See Spot run. –and then compare it to the original. Are those extra words necessary?”
  • “The tone of the poem should be established at the beginning. If it changes later, it must be by design. Likewise, the range of diction — the word choice, or vocabulary — used in the poem must be established in the beginning. If some other sort of diction appears later, it can change the tone.”
  • “Generally, what we get in the first lines is the poem’s range in diction and tone. Any poem teaches us how to read it. This is how that teaching begins.”
  • “The line and the sentence can have a slightly different rhythm. The contrasting sound of both together is called counterpoint. Where the sentence begins on the line affects this rhythm. Some writers, such as Charles Simic, begin most of their sentences at the head of the line, which creates a sense of control. Many inexperienced writers begin their sentences at any available point, which creates a sense of the gratuitous.”
  • “To bury an important word in the middle of a line weakens the sentence. Emphasizing an unimportant word at the beginning or end of a line does likewise.”
  • “An enjambed line creates tension; an end-stopped line creates rest. A long sentence creates tension; a short sentence creates rest. Obscurity creates tension; clarity creates rest.”
  • “…any sound or rhythm within the poem can be repeated to create the expectation of a reappearance.”
  • “If tension keeps building without a rest — for instance, using one enjambed line after another — the reader may grow weary and turn away from the page.”
  • “If we come upon a double stress or a spondee, we assume the writer is trying to tell us something. Otherwise, why would he or she insert the emphasis? The same is true with a trochaic substitution. In fact any departure from the rhythmic norm can be used to create nuance.”
  • “A line made up of long-duration syllables and soft consonants will move slowly and seem long even if it is short.”
  • “Many synonyms of small words have the same meaning: someone, somebody; just, only; start, begin; seem, appear; out of, from; another, each other, etc.  These words are interchangeable, as are many others, and the addition or subtraction of a single syllable or noise can affect the rhythm.”

Annotations from a Chapter on Revision

dobyns book

As I read Stephen Dobyns’ Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, I annotated the margins and occasionally talked back to Dobyns (not that he was listening).

Here, for posterity, are a few of the quotes of note from that chapter:

  • “…the first axiom for being a writer is to forgive yourself for writing badly, I learned that no matter how badly I had written, I could make it better.”
  • “…the poem exists not in that first burst of creativity, but in revision.”
  • “The shift between composition and revision is the shift from the imaginative to the analytic, the nondiscursive to the discursive, the expansive to the controlled, from freedom to restraint, license to judgment.”
  • “In letters Rilke condemned his early poetry, meaning poetry he wrote before 1900, saying the poems didn’t have enough patience in them.”
  • “Rilke’s impatience sprang from a worry about how the poem would end. Most of us do the same. I’ve got it rolling, I think, but where is it going? This is where Rilke said he didn’t wait long enough. He would force an ending that sounded good, but it didn’t resolve the poem. Many poets do this.”
  • “A common revision tool is to rewrite the poem using that last line as the first line to see what might happen.”
  • “Don’t let the critical mind interfere with the creative; make it wait.”
  • “After the poet has spent a fair amount of time with the poem, things begin to seem obvious that perhaps would not be obvious to the reader, or things may seem strident that are really only in the middle range of emotion.”
  • “All poets hate to be called ‘too obvious,’ and so they may erase necessary material. Th poet may also begin to mute his or her voice. This is usually destructive. Try to read from the reader’s point of view to see whether you are muting your voice or you’ve cut out necessary bits and pieces.”
  • “A wide variety of interior forces also affect one’s writings, such as emotions, physical well-being or the lack of it, and the complicated effects of the unconscious. All can diminish free will.”
  • “If there is a discrepancy between what one wants and what is on the page, it can be helpful to write out a prose description of one’s intention and then compare the results to the draft of the poem.”
  • “…a reader comes to understand a poem by asking questions of it, and one question is: ‘Why does this poem have this shape rather than another?'”
  • “Stanzas of equal length can create a sense of orderliness; stanzas of unequal length can create a sense of an organic development; one long unbroken stanza can create a sense of unrelenting thought and/or narrative. The shape of the poem creates certain expectations that are useful to its understanding. The poet needs to make use of this, or at least give the poem a shape that doesn’t distract.”
  • “…for instance, if the title is several words drawn from an important part of the poem, then when the reader reaches that part of the poem, those words take on special emphasis.”
  • “Labels are often the weakest titles because they don’t do enough work.”
  • “But if, after a number of readings, nothing is clarified by the title, then the reader will be frustrated, not to say irritated.”
  • “…in looking at the beginning of one’s poem, one has to ask why it starts where it starts. What if it began with the third line, or the tenth, or the last? Sometimes the first few lines serve as a runway into the important part of the poem. They were useful once, but are useful no more.”
  • “You need to question your use of chronological sequence. Start with the action, start with something that takes the reader’s attention. Editors are swamped with submissions, and when they read, they mostly are looking for a reason to stop reading.”

More to follow later this week! If this piques your interest, give Dobyns’ book a look.

Bad Words: They Creep In


Bad words. They lose themselves in the crowd, but they are more prevalent than you think. Some of them are obvious, like the word “closed” in the expression “closed fist.” Modifiers are always guilty until proven innocent, and a better noun or verb always trumps an unnecessary modifier, so until they prove themselves good, adjectives and adverbs are suspect.

In his book Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, Stephen Dobyns lists some so-called “bad words” to watch out for, but before we go there, know this: We all have our own personal list of bad words. These would be words we overuse without realizing it.

One way to track your word habits is to use the Search in Document function on Microsoft Word, the popular software many writers use. Or you could go to a website that will track words for you. Simply cut and paste your poem, essay, chapter, etc., and let the ghost in the machine scare up some statistical habits you have as a writer of words. Once such site is this one.

As for Dobyns, he lists the following culprits: still, even, some, yet, very, just, clearly, only, finally, quite, somewhat, rather, fairly, big, deep, loud, bright, etc.

You can highlight your poem or text and use the Search in Document function to scare these up one at a time. The deal then is to ask yourself: Can I do without this word entirely? Can I change it?

Sometimes the answer is yes. Strike, kill, and shout “Eureka! Less is more!” Sometimes the answer is no. This may be a “bad word,” you tell yourself, but if I use it infrequently and, where I do, it is key to the sentence or line’s meaning, it becomes a “good word.”

The point here is at least going through the exercise and making it part of your revision process. Add Dobyn’s bad words to your own list of unreliable go-to’s. Then search and, where appropriate, destroy.

“The Little Dooms Hiding in the Shadow”


T.S. Eliot cornered the market on April being the cruelest month, but that doesn’t mean other poets can’t weigh in. Below Jim Harrison takes up the theme in his poem “Gathering April.”

Here April’s cruelty is the cold, where succor can be found in corners or swales or even a warm cellar door. Say what you will, though, April’s violence, like all of nature’s, is still living.

In fact, reading about it, you feel very much alive and outdoors. Harrison seems to realize at much toward the end when he counts as a blessing “that an April exists,” because for it to exist, he must.

Meantime, a shout-out goes to Shigeyoshi Obata’s translations of Li-Po’s poetry. Now there’s an April thought. One you can take in during October, even.

Gathering April Jim Harrison

Stuffing a crow call in one ear
and an unknown bird's in the other,
lying on the warm cellar door out of
the cool wind which I take small sparing
bites of with three toes still wet from the pond's
edge: April is so violent up here you hide
in corners or, when in the woods, in swales
and behind beech trees. Twenty years ago
this April I offered my stupid heart up to
this bloody voyage. It was near a marsh
on a long walk. You can't get rid of those
thousand pointless bottles of whiskey
that you brought along. Last night after
the poker game I read Obata's Li Po.
He was no less a fool but adding those
twenty thousand poems you come up
with a god. There are patents on all
the forms of cancer but still we praise
god from whom or which all blessings flow:
that an April exists, that a body lays itself
down on a warm cellar door and remembers, drinks
in birds and wind, whiskey, frog songs
from the marsh, the little dooms hiding
in the shadow of each fence post.

Submittable Q & A


Periodically I like to send questions to my fellow submitting Submittable Warriors, also known as “writers.” Their answers show that we all share a similar range of experiences using this technological convenience. Here’s a sampling of the Q & A’s.

What is it like waiting for RECEIVED submissions to flip over to IN PROGRESS submissions, and IN PROGRESS submissions to progress to a decision?

  • “It’s like watching water wait to wait to be boiled.”
  • “Like political ads. Excruciating and maddening.”
  • “Have you ever played fetch with a tortoise? You know. You fling the lettuce, then yell in its face: ‘Go on, boy! Go on!’ Like that.”
  • “Like looking forward to Christmas on December 26th.”
  • “Auditing a course on studying wallpaper.”
  • “The word ‘Received’ is my mantra for morning meditations, ‘In Progress’ for nightly ones. Has been for 8 months. Maybe your question’s a koan.”
  • “Like watching The Food Network. Eternal similarity. Stubborn persistence. Few payoffs.”

When is it worth paying a reading fee?

  • “When you’re accepted and it’s a paying market. Other than that, never.”
  • “When the journal is worthy of financial support. That way, you can look at it as a non-deductible contribution to a good cause.”
  • “When no one will read you for free.”
  • “I do it to reward audaciousness.”
  • “I haven’t done so because every time I email an editor about my writing fee, I get virtual crickets. Have you ever heard a virtual cricket?”
  • “When you want to brag about a certain magazine soliciting your stuff. Just don’t mention that your ‘stuff’ is a credit card as opposed to your poems.”

How many simultaneous submissions do you typically make for any given work?

  • “Three. Maybe I’ve been hard-wired by bad jokes, but everything comes in threes and that includes my submissions ceiling.”
  • “I don’t believe in simul-subs. This gives me plenty of time to revise my work between submissions, meaning no two submissions of the same work are ever alike.”
  • “You mean you count them?”
  • “I take it as a challenge. I once had a poem out at 53 markets over the course of two years, all eventually demurring. Would you say it needed work?”
  • “6.5.”

Is Submittable is more worthwhile for writers or for markets?

  • “Well, let’s see. I’m a marketing dunce, so it’s a godsend. Writers.”
  • “Definitely markets. Journals pay for the service, but if they charge a reading fee, they more than offset their costs. They profit handily. In some cases footily.”
  • “More and more markets use it, so I guess there’s good financial reasons to do so. Markets.”
  • “Submittable itself is a market. Markets benefit markets. It’s in the same aisle as corporations being people according to SCOTUS. Different but the same. Ka-ching!”
  • “Writers. How else would I know what I sent where three years ago? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.”

Opposites Attract Poetry


Advice works best when you can apply it both specifically and universally. The dichotomy of such things is a rich vein for poets to mine: concrete and abstract, specific and universal, physical and psychological.

We get a taste of this in the directives of Jeff Coomer’s “Some Advice for Clearing Brush.” Take it literally and it works. Take it figuratively and it still works. Therefore, according to my unschooled syllogism, it works.

Read along and see. Note especially the final stanza, how it can be stated in different words, how those words can sound like wisdom being passed down through the ages, how it may work for situations you’ve faced and may yet have to face.

Yeah. Like that. Specific and universal.

Some Advice for Clearing Brush by Jeff Coomer

Walk noisily to declare your presence.
The rabbits and deer will leave
as soon as they hear you coming,
but the snakes need time
to process your intentions.

Take a moment to be certain
of what you’re cutting.
Many stems look alike
down close to the ground,
especially when they’re young.
Look up occasionally.

Don’t begrudge the wild roses
for whipping thorns across
your face and arms,
or the honeysuckle
for tangling your feet
and pulling the pruners
from your hands. You’d do
the same in their place.
Honor them with a clean cut.

Never begin when you’re angry
or you might not stop
until there’s nothing left
to hold the soil.

Always wear gloves
and keep your eye
on the blade.