Next word best word Stephen Dobyns

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Annotations from a Chapter on Revision

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. The 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.