Revising a poem

One of the delights of writing poetry, believe it or not, is rewriting it. Sure, the initial impulse may yield something suggestive, but unless you are Mozart (most of us are not) we tend not to dash out an immortal work of art on the first draft.

I’ve had occasional luck in writing poems that needed little or no revision. But this is not the usual route at all. Instead, I’ll write something on the spur of the moment, or be spurred by a story I heard, an article I read, something going on around me or around the world. Then I’ll put the draft aside a day or two, and come back to it. Or, more likely, a week or two, a month or two, a year or more down the line.

What seemed so wonderful at the spark of creation now looks suspect. Redundancies. Cliches. Incoherencies. (What do I need to explain, in a short lyric, and what explains itself or needs no explanation? What evades or defies explanation or expectation?) Do I lack convincing imagery?

Poetry, as opposed to fiction, is almost all texture. You don’t have to concern yourself overly much with plot, or story, or character. Read my flapping lips, dear reader: poetry is the words on the page. It’s images, ideas, rhythms.

So here’s an example of how I’ve recently set up revising a poem, a decent beginning that I’ve had around quite awhile and which began as purely a technical description of a plant found in the calcareous fens southwest of the Twin Cities. (The poem derives from an interview I had conducted with Steve D. Eggers, with the US Army Corp of Engineers, St. Paul District, for an article about calcareous fens in a river watershed publication.)

sterile sedge
A growth form of the sterile sedge (photo by Steve D. Eggers).

To the Sterile Sedge, version 1
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb of fens, your tufty
stems erect and many slender leaves,
your four stalkless spikelets, your
egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your staminate-
only, seedless sterility: who see
you as we rush by on the highway?

Well, this may be fine and well as far as it goes, but I think you’ll agree with me that it doesn’t go far enough. It’s a technical description flavored by very specific sensory words, some of them rarely found in the layman’s vocabulary. So the words draw attention in and to themselves. They leave a pleasant hum in the brain, could be.

But so what? The poem, as is, is an extended address or apostrophe to the sterile sedge. I mean, it’s an invocation, as in “Oh you who are so-and-so or such-and-such, etc.” So we’re beginning to get acquainted with this unknown and obscure plant. 

But only the last two lines, which pose a question, make the poem a sentence and begin to make sense of it. Here you are, humble, sterile, drab, unnoticed plant. Who in the world would ever see or notice you … besides a botanist?

So the question is posed but not answered. 

The next version of the poem attempts to provide an answer, adding six lines to the original nine.

To the Sterile Sedge, version 2
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb of fens, your tufty
stems erect and many slender leaves,
your four stalkless spikelets, your
egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your staminate-
only, seedless sterility: who see
you as we rush by on the highway?

We have our own reasons, I suppose,
perhaps illicit liaisons, perhaps work,
licensed or not, on new developments,
the usual human things which threaten
your species and prolong ours, for which
we implore your forgiveness and sing this song.

Okay, so we’re beginning to supply an answer. 

The question is how satisfactory is the answer? How close does it strike to the hearts and minds of most readers?

Looking back at this draft now, I imagine it’s a hit or miss answer. If you’ve ever had an extramarital love affair or extralegal business transaction, these items may appeal to you. But I fear they’re not universal enough in themselves, nor described in particular, convincing detail.

I could go on supplying detail, which might heighten the interest of the poem, but I fear moralizing too much or insisting on a view that’s too personal, despite the use of the first person plural (“we”).

After the poem lay about for years, gathering dust or, better, must, becoming more suggestive if not quite finished, like an aging wine, I had another go at it and came up with this:

To the Sterile Sedge, version 3
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb, your tufty stems and many
slender leaves, your four stalkless spikelets,
your egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your seedless
staminate-only sterility: all these
in fact are of little note to us as we
rush past on the highway overhead
or walking the field trample underfoot
everything in our way, until, suddenly
we stumble and, surprised by joy, fall
on our knees and humbly at this late
date implore your forgiveness
and beg your longevity.

This third version is most satisfactory to me, though gods know if it will be the final.

What do you think?

I’m sure there is room for improvement — in diction, rhythm, specificity, universality, concern for the reader. But whether I’ll trot out 80 drafts or more, the way Robert Bly and Donald Hall used to do with each other’s poems, I doubt it.

There comes a point in poetry, as in life, where good enough might be left alone and, yes, where the perfect is the enemy of the good and even the publishable.

At any rate, I hope I have suggested a few ways for you to step back from a poem and play the friendly and helpful self-critic too.

Poem genesis

So how does a poem get started? And how does it get polished and revised if not perfected?

There’s a lot to be said for raw energy. I know poets who put out daily (one of them calls his output, which he puts out on his iPhone, his “daily drivel”; another pours out slam poetry, which slams against the brain, I would say, the way pop music does).

In my case, there’s an impulse, an idea or image or story. It’s raw stuff, yes, what Henry James called, in the case of fiction, the “germ” of the story. But whether I have a narrative or not, I generally start with a germ. Here’s the latest example I can offer. The other day, pruning a Chinese golden raintree in my garden, I noticed how many spindly, flailing arms the tree had. And wondered, not logically but magically, but metaphorically, what would people be like if they had that many arms to wave or employ in god knows what endeavors?

Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210)
Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210).

Nothing happened with this germ until this morning, when I connected the idea of the Chinese tree with the Chinese poet Li Bai, about whom I’ve been reading a bit. Not that I know much about Li Bai, except he was one of the most famous Chinese poets, from the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century CE, and was translated by Ezra Pound, among others, and I had studied Pound a bit in graduate school at UT-Austin and used one of his translations of Li Bai (or Li Po) in my wedding ceremony, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” which ends plaintively like this:

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

So, knowing I could do worse than invoking Li Bai, I wrote this (which reflects quite a few little changes and is not, I’m sure, yet finished):

The Tree

The Chinese raintree at the garden pond
flings out its weepy arms as if it were
a woman, say the river merchant’s wife,
imploring the return of her long gone man.
Seventy summers and winters having come
and gone, I might like to do the same, grow
how many sets of arms, my hair down to
the ground, flailing and beseeching the return
of the things I’ve lost or never had. Where
was I? Ah, yes. Until that day, if and when
it comes, I could do worse than remember
the days when I was young and held her
in my arms, the days I would read Li Bai
and think of coming out to meet her
as far as Chō-fū-Sa.

There’s something missing here, I fear. What, for example, are “the things I’ve lost or never had”? Enigmatic, yes? What do you think? We’ve all had them.

At any rate, you can see here something of the process of generating the idea for a poem and then a pretty good if not complete draft of the poem itself. The lessons, if any, for poets in general, or readers for that matter? One, be alert to the clues that life flings your way, whether in the flailing branches of a tree, or your reading, or your memory of events from long ago. Two, be aware as you struggle with writing or reading a poem that the big majority of them come out not full blown or grown, the way the genius Mozart might have produced his musical works or freaks, but half born, sometimes even apparently stillborn; that the form you see, that is, is the result of lots of formal work, playing with the sound and shape and layout of words, to give the impression that the poem emerged full blown from the poet’s brain, like Aphrodite from Zeus’s head.