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.

Landscape as ethical condition

In a Paris Review interview, Italian poet Antonella Anedda makes a poignant case for why we should honor the land around us. All too often, she says, the land is but an afterthought, something to take and use and scar, and then so what?

Geology has made me aware of the insignificance of human presence, of the absence of an intelligent design. The landscape of La Maddalena and Sardinia is harsh and barren and windswept. The vegetation is sparse, but also, often enough, scarred by arson, for humans have wounded the landscape as well. Since the early eighteenth century, when Sardinia was ruled by the House of Savoy, systematic deforestation was the policy.

… when the landscape is wounded by greed and speculation … has been scarred . . . the landscape that surrounds us … reminds us that we are not the masters of the natural world. It is an ethical condition. What is happening to the landscape in Sardinia and elsewhere is deeply worrying. Landscape has a relation, a spatial relation, to rhythm in poetry.

La Maddalena is the main island in an archipelago of the same name, off the northern coast of Sardinia.

Anedda’s formulation strikes me as true, exact, right on. Who can stand in the middle of a landscape like the granite of La Maddalena, or the limestone of the Ozarks where I live, or the Rocky Mountains, or a fragile desert, for that matter, and not feel awe? Not feel that we are transient compared with the rhythms of “rocks, and stones, and trees” (William Wordsworth, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”) that roll us around and our loved ones who inexplicably and inevitably fall and die.

The Lake District
The Lake District of northwest England through which William Wordsworth walked and mused (long before modern tourists).

And an awe bound up, as Anedda suggests, with the silence and solitude of the land, the terrestrial rhythms that permeate nature and take us back to archaic times. Even the dullest of us has to feel that we’re trespassing when we step into the vastness and silence of nature; feel that we’re displacing the land, or the land (soon enough) will be displacing us and our petty individual lives. 

Like Wordsworth, a later English poet, Charlotte Mew (1869-1928), recounts an abandonment to nature, in a poem called “Moorland Night”:

My face is against the grass — the moorland grass is wet —
My eyes are shut against the grass, against my lips there are the little        blades,
Over my head the curlews call, And now there is the night wind in my        hair;
My heart is against the grass and the sweet earth,– it has gone still, at      last;
It does not want to beat any more,
And why should it beat?
This is the end of the journey.
The Thing is found.

We’ve all had an inkling of that final thing, I would think, and if not had best get around to it before we find ourselves (that is, lose ourselves entirely) in a landscape of ruin.

Here and now in the States, at the start of the more environmentally conscious Biden administration, we hear the same wearisome and unconvincing argument about jobs, jobs, jobs. Why should we switch from gas-guzzling cars to electric? Oil extraction and exploitation give us jobs, money, livelihood if not life. So what if we scar the land and ruin it, in effect, with our depredations? More money to spend on more unnecessary things, the junk we see in the ads or the store aisles.

Of course, it’s American poets like Gary Snyder that come to mind most readily when we think of landscape, as in the lovely and particular discovery that is the subject of “Above Pate Valley,” a poem in which the narrator has certainly got his derriere off the couch and out into nature, which is not untouched, not an idyl anymore:

We finished clearing the last
Section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side
Two thousand feet above the creek …

Look at this poem and feel the rhythms of the hike that Snyder is taking, and taking us along on, up through the mountains “Beyond the white pine groves, / Granite shoulders, to a small / Green meadow .” Yes, this is the poetic rhythm that corresponds, as Anedda would have it, to the landscape it describes or enacts. A rhythm that jolts us into the discovery, in Snyder’s case, of a high-up and faraway place where he finds the remains of past human exploitation.

“Up to you!” as my comical younger brother Bob used to say, when he was alive to say it, about any life dilemma. Our relation to the land is certainly a dilemma, a tragical dilemma, and an ethical condition that demand a response from all of us.