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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Poetry Revision Part 1

Rewrites, revisions, whatever you want to call them require a writer to examine something already committed to a page. Early on, I probably viewed revisions in more a negative light than a positive one. Not overtly, because I don't recall it as such and I don't recall thinking about it much at all. I am sure now, thinking back this was a subconscious thing.


For the young writer I think there is an urgency to create work. There were times I knew a rewrite was necessary and I did them. There were no doubt times I didn't, yet should not be satisfied. I suppose it is a part of maturing as a writer that we learn not to be in such a rush. Awkward as it may be, I am learning this. This is an especially difficult lesson for one to learn when they did not start writing till later years and feel their life rushing along before their very eyes.


I did a survey of readers on my blog as to how many times on the average they would rewrite a poem. The results are of course not representative of a scientifically controlled survey, and the response was not near as many as I would have liked, so we are dealing with a very small universe.

The Question was this: On the average, how many revisions do you do of poems you write?
The results are as follows:

  • 3 or less 14%
  • 4-10 57%
  • 11-25 14%
  • 26-50 14%
  • more than 50 0%

I suppose it should not surprise me that the biggest response came in the 4-10 range. At first thought I would have placed myself in that category based on nothing more than a perhaps less than educated guess. But as I pulled out a few drafts of things I've written more recently, I decided that I really am more likely in the 11-25 range on an average, but closer to 11 then the higher end of the range. I've had a few like one titled Night Wishes that came almost spontaneously and as I recall tweaked I think two words in it from the original draft. Things like this however are rare.

I know people who firmly believe the first thought on paper is the best and don't like to make changes because of the belief that something subliminal has lead them to write a great truth. I find subliminal influence on writing very interesting but I don't subscribe to any notion that there is something sacred about the first thoughts to reach the page.

I have marveled at the assertion by Donald Hall that he has rewritten poems hundreds of times. The poem White Apples about his father's death took him 17 years to write.

I think there is a comfort level that must come only with maturity in writing that allows you to slow yourself down a bit and really look for the right words in the right places in your poems. One of the benefits of getting work accepted in various venues and waiting for them to come out is that it has allowed me not to be in such a hurry to get something new to send out. In fact of my last four accepted poems, two have been older ones that have hung around a while.

More rewrites are not always going to make a better poem but I think some level of rethinking is always critical. In fact I now like to put a poem that I feel is finished back and revisit again a week later. Sometimes what sounded good a week ago leaves you thinking what you might have been drinking when you stopped and put it aside. I have taken the rewrite process to an extreme and found that I was getting further from what I wanted, not closer. There is obviously nothing magical about the number of drafts but I think a willingness to try new language or approach is critical to growing as a poet. Sometimes shaking up the poem by reversing the beginning and the end, or rewriting a first person into another viewpoint.

If I am having trouble getting started with new stuff, I find that it is sometimes go back to old journals and pull out something unfinished, or really rough and work on it from a new perspective.

I've got more to say on the topic but I don't want to unload it all tonight. Besides, I'm interested in other perspectives on the value of revision and the process others use.

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