Jane Hirshfield’s Handout on Revision

Jane H

In their book, The Poet’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux share a worksheet Jane Hirshfield created for a Napa Valley Writers’ Conference she taught.

Can you imagine? Being surrounded by both the poet Jane Hirshfield and hundreds of wineries? Sounds inspiring to me (and rated 90-plus by the Poetry Advocate), but I have yet to attend any writers’ conference, much less one in California with Jane Hirshfield, which I mean to change some year soon. (As Shakespeare wrote: “My kingdom for a bucket list!”)

Addonizio and Laux (sounds like a good law firm) claim Hirshfield’s list tackles “the more existential aspects of revision,” so it gets better and better: Hirshfield + wine + Camus. Pass the baguette and ghazals!

But enough word play. Let’s take a look at Hirshfield’s revisionary wisdom for poets and see if the Buddha doesn’t sneak in:

SOME POSSIBLE QUESTIONS TO ASK OF YOUR POEM IN REVISION

  • What is being said?
  • Is there joy, depth, muscle, in the music of its saying?
  • Is there more that wants to be said?
  • Does it want a more deeply living body of sound?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it ethical?
  • Does it feel?
  • Does it follow its own deepest impulses, not necessarily the initial idea?
  • Does it know more than you did when you started it?
  • Are there things in it that don’t belong?
  • Are whatever digressions it takes in its own best service?
  • Are there things in it that are confusing?
  • Are there things in it that are clichĂ©d or sentimental?
  • Is it self-satisfied?
  • Is it predictable?
  • Does it go deep enough? far enough?
  • Is it particular?
  • Is the grammar correct?
  • If the syntax is unusual, is it for a purpose?
  • Are the transitions accurate?
  • Is it in the right voice?
  • Is it in the right order?
  • Does the diction fit?
  • Could any of its words be more interesting? more surprising? more alive?
  • Do its rhythms work? (i.e. both seem right and accomplish meaning and feeling)
  • Does the music work?
  • Does the shape/form work? (line breaks, stanzas, etc.)
  • Does each image work? each statement?
  • Does it allow strangeness?
  • Does each of its moments actively move the poem toward its full realization?
  • Should it go out into the world?
  • Is it a seed for something else?
  • Is it finished?
  • Six months later, is it still finished?
  • Six years later, is it still finished?

 

Maybe the Buddhist leanings of Hirshfield are in there, maybe not, but change is inevitable and personification is apparent. I especially like the finishing flourish. Should your precious child go out in the world? Remember now, as the author, you are blinded by love. Sometimes the answer is a decided no.

And what about that seed of something else bit? A terrific way of reminding ourselves that we often start writing a poem with one goal and accidentally achieve something entirely different. Celebrate! Then start revising.

And the last two points on the list. Sing them loud, sing them clear: Wait, wait, wait! Be patient! Let your poems age in their oak barrels a bit, gain character and fruity notes of currants and blackberries. Look at them again after a few flips of the calendar page. Chances are you’ll see a very different poem: one that requires revision, especially if you initially allowed strangeness that you thought was good strangeness but it turned out to be just weird strangeness.

Time helps you recognize that, kind of like the morning after too much wine brings recognition, too. In that sense, good poems revealed as bad are like the epiphany of Sunday morning headaches. You learn and revise….

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