Friday, January 11, 2008

Adventures of the Letter "I" (Part II): Revision

Revision, for many poets, especially those just unfurling their wings, often involves editing, not true revision. For art's sake, for eternity's sake, poets at times should seriously consider the first twenty or even fifty drafts of any poem as not acceptable, especially if for them revision comes down to shifting a word or inserting or deleting an adjective.

The term revision literally means to "re-see" something, whether it's a poem, a puzzle, or a mathematical problem. If one investigates the writing habits of some exceptional poets, one will realize that many didn't stop working on their poems prematurely. For example, the late James Dickey noted during the years that produced his wonderful book Buckdancer's Choice that he wrote with the conviction that the first one hundred drafts of any poem wouldn't satisfy him. Sadly, after winning the National Book Award, Dickey floundered, for his poetry seemed to diminish in ambition (an all-too-common result when the spur for fame loses its sharpness). Only late in his life did he seem to regain some of his youthful fire and once more gave us some lovely poems.

But the Ronald McDonald-like belief in numbers alone won't necessarily have memorable results; in fact, a few drastic revisions can be fruitful. For instance, William Butler Yeats often wrote only four to six drafts of his poems, but they were remarkable revisions: Rarely did one draft even remotely resemble the successive drafts, for he wasn't committed to the notion that his initial tropes required survival.

Both Dickey and Yeats understood that, for the imagination to flourish in conjunction with what's called craft, one must put pressure on one's art--on one's self--and re-see where a poem steams at full power and where it merely idles with unlabored puffs.

Of course, young poets sometimes can't recognize such moments, which is where honest criticism from mentors and fellow bards in workshops or Starbucks can lessen such poetic myopia. Not surprisingly, the best reason for anyone to take a creative writing workshop is to expose him- or herself to the heated, at times painful comments offered by mentors and friends (and these should be friends in the truest sense and not enablers: The workshop should never adhere to the Zenith Chamber of Commerce's motto: "Don't knock! Boost!"). And such harsh criticism should always be concerned with what's on the page, not with authors' personalities or the latest "schools of poetry." Therefore, each workshop participant should be free to eavesdrop, a wonderful gift even if the recipient can't initially appreciate it as he or she winces or groans--and resists the urge to defend his or her work. Otherwise, rebuttal might draw those boosters that Sinclair Lewis satirized in Babbitt.

And, dear critic, please remember that merely suggesting that a word should be dropped or a line needs to be repositioned might not be what's needed: Does the poem need editing or revision? Far too often, the latter requires serious consideration.

To withdraw for a moment to the personal, I remember listening to a fairly well-known poet whose work I wasn't familiar with but quickly found to be somewhat disconcerting: His trains of thought in almost every poem he read literally shouted their destinations long before he came to the final, soot-black periods. I turned to my neighbor and quietly remarked, "Why do I get the feeling he doesn't revise his work?"

Afterwards, during the question-and-answer part of the evening, the poet said that he "never revised" his poems: He always went with his first drafts! No wonder I ached to be outside in the November winds; at least the cold air would have made me feel more alive than the expected ruminations that assaulted my eardrums for nearly an hour.

No one likes to be told that his or her poem is a failure. However, analogously, a tennis coach would be far too lenient--and misleading and possibly even harmful--if he or she suggests that a man or woman who just picked up a tennis racket last month--or last year--is ready for Wimbledon.


Francisco Aragón said...

Keep these coming.

OBermeo said...

thank you for this and your other posts. looking forward to reading more.

all the best,

Robert Vasquez said...

Dear Francisco and Oscar,

Thank you for your kind and encouraging comments. I hope my future posts won't let you down.

And instead of my rooting for one of the football teams in the playoffs, I'll root for you two and your literary brothers and sisters who've earned a praise-worthy shout:
"Go Latinos/as!"

All the best,


Sheryl said...

Another great entry Robert. Thanks for these.

Diana Marie Delgado said...


Your posts are very astute. As I work more intimately on my manuscript I find that re-visioning the body of my work is more and more the answer versus line breaks and word insertions. Thank your for this post. I really needed it.

Robert Vasquez said...

Dear Sheryl and Diana,

Thanks for your kind comments. I hope whatever I put on the blogsite will be of use to those who read them.

All the best,


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