Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Poem drafts

"Smiths Knoll"

I recently send a poem to "Smiths Knoll". The editors replied saying that "We ... had a couple of doubts". I could have addressed those doubts by tweaking a couple of lines. Of the 18 lines I ended up leaving one line alone. One line in the re-write is new, the others have been tweaked, sometimes reversing their meaning. It was a recent poem - I felt no resistance to re-writing, it was a continuation of what I'd stopped doing only a week before.

"Making Poems"

This week I've been reading "Making Poems", edited by Todd Davis and Erin Murphy (State University of New York, 2010) in which poets have a chance to write about the development of one of their poems. I found Shara McCallum's explanation (p.89) the most interesting, bringing up several issues that occurred to me during re-writing

  • The first draft was entitled "The Unreliable Narrator Speaks to her Audience"
  • The second draft, written on the same day (May 5th 2003), had an alternative title of "Penelope Refigured" ("The uncertainty partly reflected my discomfort with the self-consciousness of the first title ... Penelope, a figure of myth I'd long been interested in ... seemed capable of the kind of utterance that comprised the first drafts opening lines ... Formally, the poem began as a single stanza but in the second draft migrated to quatrains, which were present as a unit of sound and rhetoric to my ear even in the first 'block' version"
    Already there are interesting developments - the sentiments have found an embodiment that was waiting to be used. And we have an explanation for the poem's shape
  • "By the time I moved from my journal to the computer (draft three, on May 9), I changed the stanzaic structure again, trimming it to tercets. Playing with stanza lengths has, for the past ten years, been a revision tool to help me refine language. Determining a fixed length is not an arbitrary process but one governed by the dominant stanza length I see emerging as I revise the poem. Working with a defined stanza forces me to make difficult decisions about which images, word, and lines are best for conveying a poem's idea or feeling"
    I like the idea of using stanza lengths as a revision tool - a way to focus on different words, see the poem in a new light. Because revising involves reading the same poem many times, it helps to have a device that stops you becoming over-familiar with the text. She lets the dominant stanza length force regularity on the poem. Why? I'm not sure. She write that "the couplet offers the most space for pauses and reflectivity in a poem, the tercet a bit less, and so on. Because I favor a controlled pacing and tempo, I almost always select a fixed stanza length" so perhaps this poem has an unchanging pace and tempo?
  • "'Penelope' was published in tercets in the Fall 2004 issue of the Antioch Review". Here are the start and the ending.
    I know I am losing you now
    when I need you to hear me the most,
    speaking across this barrier of time.

    Listen, if I am not an ocean,
    I am nothing. If I am not a world
    unto myself, I have to know it.

    Lemon rinds in the dried brook-bed,
    fireflies in the face of uncertain evil -
    Nothing left
    but me scratching out these words,
    waiting for you message in return.
  • A poem's publication often ends its development, but not this time. "When I began putting together my third book, weaknesses in the writing became glaring to me ... [the poem] underwent another ten or so drafts over the course of the next two years. .... In November 2004, it became 'Dear Country' ... The title change, I hoped, would make it possible for the poem to 'fit' into that sequence ... By late 2005, I dropped that idea and went back to 'Penelope' ... I began to be ruthless with the poem, cutting any line or stanza that seemed weak or disconnected in the least. Stanzas one, four, five, and seven [the last] went onto the chopping block in their entirety ... I was left with a muddle of language that could not be reassembled in the old way ... The poem begins with a series of images, which I think renders it less emphatic in tone at the outset ... Three years after the poem began, on May 23, 2006, it came to rest in its final form.". Here are the start and the ending
    Lemon rinds in the dried brook-bed,
    Fireflies in the face of uncertain evil -

    If I am not an ocean,
    I am nothing.

    If I am not a world unto myself,
    I have to know it.
  • But the story doesn't end there. It eventually appeared as "My Mother as Penelope" in her 2011 book "This Strange Land". In an interview with Geoffrey Philp she says "In my most recent book, personal experiences with mothering and marriage are set against historical narratives and myths. Still, writing autobiography is not what I am after as a poet. The details of my life are important to my poems but must be transformed to serve the poems' ends: they must enact the struggle for self-knowledge that is at the core of poetry. ... When I write, I often find myself grappling with issues of language and identity, as well as the interconnection between the two; but when I think about what I hope most for my poems, it is that they will approach these concerns (and any others) in a manner that is translucent."

The poem's been on a long journey - from a block to couplets; from an anonymous voice through a myth (Penelope) to a particular voice (the mother). The new context has given it extra meanings. The issues of appearance and content interacted as the drafts progressed, though I remain unconvinced that the layout is as beneficial to the reader as it's been to the writer. I think the poem's best lines are mostly those that were in the first draft. In particular the first stanza of the Antioch Review version sounds like a tacked-on intro. Perhaps I should change my older poems too, even if they have been published.

"Poetry as Research"

Also this week I read "Poetry as Research" (John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2010) in which David Ian Hanauer reports his finding on the development of poems (which he says confirms other research). He identifies 4 stages -

  • Activation - real world events; generated ideas, sensory images and sound, intertextual influences, poetry writing intention
  • Discovery -
  • Permutation - replacement was preferred followed by deletion and addition which suggests that poets rework within the existing framework.
  • Finalization - decision to view poem as a finished object

The Discovery and Permutation phases cycle around until the poet's satisfied. Nothing very new here, though the nature of the rewrites is interesting. Armstrong ("The Poetic Dimensions of Revision", 1986) reports that expert poets delete more often than they add, and replace more than they delete. Armstrong ("A Process Perspective in Poetic Discourse", 1984) found that experts spend far more time revising than novices do. Also interesting are the decision processes involved at the end, the moment when it becomes a product.


  1. This is fascinating. I like to think my poems are "done" once they are published, but I discovered this is absolutely not true when I was putting together my first collection. Even poems that had been anthologised went under the axe, but that's a very funny, almost disloyal, feeling. The same is true with prose, by the way. My first novel which was published in both hard and paperback, has been discussed by a different publisher as one which could become an ebook. She said I should "look it over", but by page 8 I had decided there were whole chunks I wanted to rewrite, and the idea of it
    paralyzed me :-)

  2. I think Wordsworth, Auden etc kept re-writing, but it's not something I've bothered with. Rewriting a novel's a different matter though - suppressing entirely is more common.

  3. Interesting. I’m not big on reworking poems and only twice have I made changes to please editors. My general feeling is that a poem is ‘of its time’ and so, if I feel I have more to say on a given subject, I tend to write fresh pieces. I’m not saying that once I’ve numbered the poem and it’s in my big red folder that it’s set in stone but it does mark an end for me. If I find myself reluctant to stick it in the folder when I know it’s not done. At the start it was all about building quantity but now the folder’s so damn thick if I hit you over the head with it I’d do you serious damage and I’m in no rush just to add poems for the sake of it; only the very best make the cut and I have scraps of poems lying all over the place that twenty years ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about keeping. But that’s me. Marianne Moore was a tinkerer. Look at her poem ‘Poetry’, for example, which she pottered around with for five decades before hacking it down to a mere three lines.

  4. The concept of a poem being "finished" is one that poets differ on. Some say that their poems are abandoned, others that the poems are always under revision. Once it's in my folder, a poem's not going to change much. I tend to start afresh too.