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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.

Poetry as Suggestion


Poems suggest themselves, even though they’re not there. By “poem,” I don’t mean the written product, although the suggestion may evolve to that. I mean anything that strikes you, that invites reverie, that slips some meta into your morning cognition.

This morning, the poem was the sound of rain on the roof. Ordinary, of course, but less so when it hasn’t rained for weeks — or at least not with the force needed for roof music.

Then as dawn turned black to gray outside the windows, I noticed a single red maple leaf rain-plastered to the window screen. In its minimalist way, it was like the calendar photograph for the month of October in New England.

Leaf as poem, in other words.

Sometimes even negative space can suggest poetry. How all of the songbirds of May and June have left. How the remaining birds are less musical: nuthatches scritching in circles around the tree trunks, chickadees flitting from branch to branch, the kingfishers out front with their forays over the lake.

But mostly it’s the quiet. The negative space left by nesting birds who have long forsaken us, leaving us to our fall and the coming cold.

Bird silence. A rare rain against the metal roof. A maple leaf framed by the window.

Poetry as suggestion, every one of them. No more, no less.

Random Thoughts, Election Cycle


It’s been a while since I’ve given the green light to one of my occasional random thoughts posts, probably because I’ve been preoccupied by things political, and this blog is supposed to be more about writing and poetry and (insert British accent) LIT-er-a-chuh. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum, then, but if you are a fan of orange mold (as in forgotten refrigerator leftovers or tenants in the Accent-on-White House), you might want to skip on to the next blog.

  • First things first, WordPress, my longtime host, has switched their software or something, and count me as a definite NO vote for the new methods of posting. Supposedly clicking CLASSIC makes it like the old set-up, but who are they kidding? It’s a different animal. A wild one. Showing signs of rabies.
  • My daughter is encouraging me to jump to my own site with my own name as the domain name. All the writers are doing it, she says. Well, then, if all of them are doing it, who am I to walk to the beat of my own drummer? (Just don’t tell Thoreau I said so.)
  • Meaning: You’ll be the first to know if I move to greener (and more self-absorbed) pastures.
  • Speaking of self-absorbed, Amazon sales statistics turn authors into so many paper towels. They can’t absorb enough of those lower-is-better numbers on the statistical sales tabulations.
  • Pitiful, no?
  • Yes.
  • Good news: my third poetry book will be out in the summer of 2021.
  • Bad news: the pandemic fall and winter will be long ones.
  • Every time I read about Trump’s campaign for “Law & Order,” I add an asterisk and the words “* Except when the laws apply to him.”
  • Writing is not for the faint of heart, true, but it’s REALLY not for the elderly of heart, as in 80- and 90-somethings. “The wait,” one octogenarian told me, “on submissions will be the death of me.”
  • That’s dark humor, by the way.
  • Wasn’t it delicious to see the Snowflake-in-Chief run away when he stepped onto the Supreme Court steps to supposedly honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg? A chorus of boos from the crowd followed by chants of “Vote him out!” sent him running for the exits ipso fasto, so used to screened audiences of adoring enablers is he.
  • Purple and pink. You might consider them a little girl’s favorite colors, but I stepped outside and noted purplish clouds with pink tinges at the edge due to a light fog and a rising sun.
  • As Ernie once said: “The Sun Also Rises.”
  • Nota Bene: He stole that from Ecclesiastes.
  • Spark Notes hint: God’s favorite colors? Sometimes purple and pink!
  • Grammar maven hint: Do NOT italicize the book title if it happens to be the Bible or any of the books within the Bible. (I should know. I just looked it up.)
  • In the last great pandemic in 1918, the second wave — so much worse than the first — came in October. It can’t be good that today is September 27th.
  • One good thing — no, two good things — about October in New England: foliage and apples.
  • Trump has announced that he will not observe the peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. I figured that would about do it for those saying they’re voting for him, but the polls haven’t reflected that.
  • So I said to a Trump supporter: “Doesn’t it alarm you when, for the first time in American history, we have a ‘man’ who says he will not follow democratic norms, but instead will seize power from the winner? What’s more important to you: your country or your party?”
  • The answer I got: “My party is my country.”
  • You see the problem. And if you once wondered how so many Germans could fall for the likes of Hitler, wonder no more.
  • When patriotic Americans tell me, “If this tinpot dictator wins re-election, I’m moving to Canada,” I have to remind them that Canada won’t have them. No country will, anymore.
  • Book idea: Sartre’s No Exit.
  • Say… isn’t that the book where Hell is other people?
  • This is why you have to lie down, breath slowly, and don earphones to listen to Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe, Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam, Benjamin Britten, or Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. (Just remember to get up in time to vote.)
  • Writerly goal for Oct. 1st: Get through the upcoming month without paying a single reading fee. If you have to pay people to read you, you’re not writing very well.
  • Readerly goals for Oct. 1st: At least two uninterrupted hours of reading daily after at least 30 minutes of exercise (walking is fine!). And keep a pen and journal by your side as you read. Good writing often gives birth to good ideas!
  • Final thought: Town police forces and national military budgets soak up a lot of taxpayer revenue. Therefore, as a taxpayer, you should never trust a draft-dodging tax evader who refuses to share his tax returns, especially when he claims to love the police and the military and the flag (but is too cheap and venal to pay the taxes required to support them). Follow his actions, not his words, and you’ll get the real story.
  • See? That wasn’t bad. Only one or two political thoughts. Or three. Or four maybe.

“Finish the Wine in This Field of Air”


Look at his picture and you might think Jim Harrison is Charles Bukowski-like. Craggy and gruff. Cigarette burning between two fingers. No-nonsense poems that allow for the occasional nonsense, usually involving alcohol.

In sustained reading of Harrison’s poems in his book, Song of Unreason, however, I’d say he’s more of a nature guy like Frost, say, or Bly. Unlike Frost, though, there’s little in the way of form poems with meter and rhyme scheme. Just off the cuff stuff that looks easy but, of course, isn’t.

Here’s the lead-off poem in the collection that gives you an idea of his range:

Broom by Jim Harrison

To remember you’re alive
visit the cemetery of your father
at noon after you’ve made love
and are still wrapped in a mammalian
odor that you are forced to cherish.
Under each stone is someone’s inevitable
surprise, the unexpected death
of their biology that struggled hard, as it must.
Now to home without looking back,
enough is enough.
En route buy the best wine
you can afford and a dozen stiff brooms.
Have a few swallows then throw the furniture
out the window and begin sweeping.
Sweep until the walls are
bare of paint and at your feet sweep
until the floor disappears. Finish the wine
in this field of air, return to the cemetery
in evening and wind through the stones
a slow dance of your name visible only to birds.

Where Nocturnes & Aubades Meet


Notice how, as readers, we naturally take the unfamiliar and make it familiar? It’s hardwired, and one of the many reasons readers like to read.

Take nocturnes. I associate them with classical music, but according to Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, “The nocturne became a European musical type in the nineteenth century, a pensive, moody instrumental piece especially suitable for playing at night, and thereafter poetic nocturnes evoke the melancholy feelings or tonalities of piano nocturnes.”

So, yes, there’s a line to be drawn between classical music and poetry, but the nocturne as a poetic genre predates this angle, going all the way back to John Donne in 1633, when he wrote “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day.” (Great title, John.)

For a modern take on the genre that stands opposite to aubades (“a dawn song expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak,” according to Hirsch, Romeo, & Juliet… the famous law firm), let’s look at Irish poet Eavan Boland’s poem by that name. As you read, keep the noise down. It’s late!

Nocturne by Eavan Boland

After a friend has gone I like the feel of it:
The house at night. Everyone asleep.
The way it draws in like atmosphere or evening.

One-o-clock. A floral teapot and a raisin scone.
A tray waits to be taken down.
The landing light is off. The clock strikes. The cat

comes into his own, mysterious on the stairs,
a black ambivalence around the legs of button-back
chairs, an insinuation to be set beside

the red spoon and the salt-glazed cup,
the saucer with the thick spill of tea
which scalds off easily under the tap. Time

is a tick, a purr, a drop. The spider
on the dining-room window has fallen asleep
among complexities as I will once

the doors are bolted and the keys tested
and the switch turned up of the kitchen light
which made outside in the back garden

an electric room—a domestication
of closed daisies, an architecture
instant and improbable.

Here’s the thing: As a reader, I’m a horrible audience for this piece. I read it and think: “Ah. Nocturne as ode to late night. Written for night owls by a night owl.”

But as a reader, I have innate strategies that work without my even knowing it. The poem’s speaker likes the feel of “The house at night. Everyone asleep,” and I identify, even though I am reliably the first person asleep in my household and always have been, barring the years when my kids were very young.

Foreign as the concept of the nocturne is, however, my inner reader flips the narrative. It reads, “The house before dawn. Everyone asleep.” Ah. Now that’s a house I know. A pensive and moody time that evokes “melancholy feelings or tonalities.”

Do you think cats don’t “come into their own” and become “mysterious” at 4 a.m., too? I wouldn’t know, having little congress with cats over the years, but I know that dogs are a different breed at that hour, as is the lighting, as are my feelings both when reading and writing. It’s a magical time with richer possibility than other times of the day.

And so, it’s enough. My unconscious, mental “switch” conveniently expands inexperience to encompass experience, a trick that writers and readers count on for both tea and sympathy.

And you know what? It’s darkest before dawn, meaning I can flip a switch and create “an electric room” outside, too. Just like that.

So go ahead. Write a nocturne just after you’ve written an aubade, no matter which you’re familiar with. Opposites attract, and your readers will adjust.

The Hazards in Speed Back or Feedback for Dollars


Submitting your work for publication? You and a few million others, it seems, and with increased submissions comes increased response times comes new ways to separate a writer from his or her money.

Let’s start with the ironies of time. We all know how tempus has a habit of fugiting, especially when it comes to that person in the mirror you see every day. You know the drill: a few gray hairs here, a few wrinkles there.

Wouldn’t it be nice to slow time down for yourself? Hey, I’ve got an idea! How about redefining your body as a poetry submission? Voilà! The process of aging slows to a turtle’s crawl.

Business being business and mankind being mankind, there are always ways to cut the long line when submitting your work. But it’s going to cost you, of course. Like everything else in our times: Be prepared to pony up some money (or, in some journals’ cases, more money).

Which leads us to the world of “expedited responses” where your disappointment arrives much quicker and your wallet grows much lighter. My advice? Unless you’re 99% sure of acceptance (and who is?), don’t do it.

Like the reading fee, the expedited response temptation is a drain best defined by tracking it. Trouble is, most writers don’t. It’s similar to coffee drinkers who stop to buy a cup of java on the way to work each morning. Considering these drinks can cost $3-$5 (especially the iced variety with sweeteners), most people wisely leave their purchases untracked. Imagine that “little” cost multiplied by working days per year! Nice money if you can get it! (And to think, you actually had it, but at least you can argue you got some satisfaction from it.)

The other pocket hole to watch for is the feedback fee. Though I’m guilty of a few “expedited dice rolls” (all turning up “snake eyes”), I’ve never done the feedback option. In this scenario, a journal offers a critique on your work for a reasonable (in itself) but sizable (when multiplied by the habit it feeds) fee.

The problem here? There’s no telling who is offering the feedback and what his or her credentials are. Sure, if it’s a name-brand poet doing the reading and feeding, I might pay for my church supper and take a seat. But the responses are mostly from folks like us… people who like poetry, read poetry, have opinions in poetry. Sometimes an intern. Sometimes a reader. Or even an editor (which you or I could call ourselves if we decided to throw up an online zine tomorrow and open a Submittable account).

When it comes to feedback, then, mileage may vary, quality-wise. For the offering journal, however, mileage will surely accrue. It’s Finance 101 come to the Arts. In a numbers game (even one based on words), both speed and opinions translate into dollars made and dollars lost.

As for the market for such practices, it’s primed and ready due to the flock’s size. After waiting from 6 to 12 months for responses and receiving boilerplate rejection notices that give no clue as to any of the thousand reasons “why” work is rejected, writers with a little cash (or plastic) are remarkably vulnerable.

Proceed with caution, then. And repeat this pithy aphorism after me: “Unless there’s an extenuating circumstance guaranteeing more than free disappointment, patience is a virtue (not to mention a savings strategy).”


Ben Franklin trying not to be Poor Richard