Poet Anders Carlson-Wee once told me that he revises his poems for at least a year before he sets them loose into that sea of chance we call poetry markets. A year!
When I first heard this, I marveled and considered it almost eccentrically-disciplined. Here we have a poet stoic for the ages, I thought, with endurance that no other writer would bother to attempt.
Over time, however, I’ve begun to revise my opinion. Unlike Carlson-Wee, I am the impatient sort, which is not to say that my poems are released the day after they are written. It was not unusual, however, to see them off to the races mere weeks after their first gasp of oxygen.
The problem? Though I sent them out, I continued to indulge in a compulsion to tinker with them, and before long, I was not happy with the versions that were sitting three to six months in poetry journal green rooms waiting for interviews.
So why send them so quickly?
A very good question. Requiring a very sensible strategy. I’ve now separated my poems without homes into two categories: those that have been living on the ranch for at least six months, and those that haven’t. The Have-Nots are no longer game for marketing.
Furthermore, I am avoiding my old habit of always trying to create at least one new poem each week. Instead, on a daily basis, I read and reread old ones that are still in swaddling clothes. Cut a word here. Add a word there. Delete a line here. Add a stanza there. Punctuation, even. Yes, no, maybe so. New poetry? It gets written when an idea can no longer wait.
With this reset, I’ve amazed myself in small ways: namely how different the poems can look just by rereading them aloud every morning before going to work, and how much they slowly evolve when given this amount of scrutiny.
Meaning, I hope Anders will hear my one-year-policy footsteps approaching from behind some day soon. I’ve begun to see the wisdom of his marathon ways. For a writer, his is not an extraordinary practice, I’ve decided, but a practical one.
No Comments “Of Preemies and Poetry”
i have poems that are over a year old that i have recently tinkered with. i don’t ever say they are complete, but that they are in a satisfactory form to make the rounds, knowing that i am comfortable with tinkering at any point tinkering becomes a possibility.
i recently learned that Lowell would change words in poems during readings. & of course Whitman was a famous reviser. i am sure it isn’t out of the ordinary.
Revising habits. They are similar, yet unique, among writers. But that’s the whole ballgame right there–revising!
i think without revising i might get away with one in 15-20 poems that sort of pop out fully formed, but even they must have a slight alteration. Ted Hughes was a fastidious reviser, but he expresses this about some of the Crow poems, they just popped out pretty much whole, sometimes; not all of them. It is an interesting phenomenon, the whole-poem- born-whole fiasco, wouldn’t mind getting me noodle round that one.
There’s no explanation for it, but it is something to crow about.
I revise them even after publication – I’ll see something that demands change, and will do so, even if no one else will ever read the revision. Goofy, but I can’t help it.
Not so goofy, actually. The compulsion serves you well in that practice accrues poetic interest.
i revise my poems thouroughly before publication. After wards I feel quite satisfied that the poem is testing the ground well.
If you are happy and satisfied no matter how many times you reread it, it’s good to go!
Thanks for your advise