Monday, January 23, 2017

Poetry Revision, A Story of Minutiae

42º, feels like 36º ~ the weekend saw temperatures in the mid-seventies, a return to cooler days is not unwelcome, even the birds' chirpings seem crisper


Today, I am spending my writing time in revision, again. The self-ekphrastic project seems driven to be "finished" or at least to be put into a shape ready for individual submissions. I have paused to recount this anecdote of revision.

There's an old joke among poets about spending a whole day revising. The punch line is, "yeah, I kept putting a comma in and then taking it out."

This is what revision looks like when I'm working on a poem that feels very strong, but not quite "there." Today, I was working on a poem of 21 lines, a lyric narrative, free verse. The first 20 lines really sang as I read them out loud. No clunkiness, no extra verbiage holding me up. And then, as I read the draft aloud over and over, I would get to the last line and it all fell apart. The line landed with a thud.

I realized that the poem needed a return glance at the opening image. Not a repetition, but a reference, a reminder of one of the central ideas of the poem that had gotten lost. So, I scratched line 21 and rewrote, ending up with 22 lines. I read and re-read the poem aloud. It was better, but still not quite right at the end.

I tinkered. I changed one word that led me to change the last line entirely. Then, I kept focusing on the first 3 words of the last line. I fretted. I used the thesaurus in search of a better word, a better verb to lead off the line. It was excruciating. After 15 or 20 minutes fumbling on that one word, I wanted to quit, to think, "I'll come back to this one later," but something kept my BIC (butt in chair) and my focus on that last line. With another read-through, perhaps my fifteenth of the morning, I finally realized that it was the last 4 words of the line that were the problem. With that knowledge, the solution came easily, and the last line fell into place.

With that falling into place comes a huge sense of satisfaction. To know when a poem has found its way to completion is two parts instinct and one part craft knowledge. My only regret for the time spent in revision is that it doesn't really burn any calories. It's all mind work with little body work to show for it. Alas.

All of this is to say that when someone asks how long it take to write a poem, I have no clear answer. There's a good chance I'll return to this draft in a few days time and realize some minor changes will need to be made. This is the minutiae of poetry revision; this is the work I love.

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