The Joy of Revision

“Revision is not cleaning up after the party; revision is the party.”

-Source unknown

“Sometimes the best revision of a poem is a new poem.”

-Marvin Bell

Poets use words to make art. Each poem is a combination, not only of words, but of decisions made consciously and unconsciously by the poet. Revision is the process of returning to a draft to make different decisions. This process is fundamental to a poet’s development, since it not only affects the poet’s decisions in relation to the poem she is immediately revisiting, but affects her future decisions in composing and revising new poems.

The appreciation of poetry is largely a matter of taste. Therefore the idea that poetry consists of the “best words in the best order” can not be considered in the context of some universal, objective “best.” Rather, it is a personal best one is always striving toward as a poet, to bring forward what is uniquely one’s own, and therefore ultimately only the poet herself can decide what constitutes a “better” decision in relation to her poem.

And yet, paradoxically, it is through input from other self-aware readers that poets can often develop most quickly, learning through feedback how their decisions affect a receptive other. Through both giving and receiving input on poems, the poet also increasingly learns to act as this receptive other for herself in composing and writing her own poems. This is why workshop groups can provide a powerful boost to the development of any writer, and especially poets.

Yet, due to the subjective nature of poetry, and the inevitable realities of interpersonal dynamics, workshop groups can tend toward consensus, which favors the safety of the known, and therefore tends toward mediocrity. However, by focusing on the poet’s specific decisions, and the effect of those decisions upon a receptive, intelligent reader, the poet can be given useful feedback. This feedback is not so much on what a reader may or may not have liked, but is instead about what is and is not working in relation to the poet’s intent–or, at least, what the poet themselves likely experienced when they first re-read their own poem. It thereby becomes a process of aesthetic calibration, comparing one’s own experience and intent to the experience of respected peers.

The following set of questions, arranged in three categories, can be used by groups or individuals to generate input on a poem. They are best used in order.

The first question deals with an aspect of poetry sometimes ignored in contemporary workshop groups–the form, or lack of form, that a poet has decided to adopt in writing the poem. The second and third questions deal with content and mood, respectively. Billy Collins is supposed to have said that the problem with beginning poets is that they are “clear when they should be mysterious, and mysterious when they should be clear.” Differentiating feedback about “what happens” in contrast to “what is evoked” by a poem can help the poet to understand the extent to which they are communicating effectively in these two distinct aspects of writing.

1. What is the form?

Does the poem employ meter? Syllable count? Does the poem employ a rhyme scheme? What about internal rhyme? Is the poem in stanzas? How many? Are they composed of equal-length lines? Are the lines of roughly the same length? Are they long or short? Does the poem use traditional syntax and grammar? Does the poem employ the sentence as a unit of thought? If so, are lines enjambed? Are the first words of each line capitalized?

2. What happens in the poem?

Is there a narrative in the poem? If so, what seems to be happening? Can you summarize the events of the poem?

Even if the poem does not seem to have any narrative (and especially if it does): who is speaking? Is there more than one speaker? What are they speaking about? To whom?

3. What is evoked by the poem?

What is the tone of the speaker? Does the tone change?

What else is hinted at, but not declared, by this poem?

What is the mood? How do you feel when reading it? Does this feeling change?

As you can see, these questions are suitable to engage even elementary readers in some form of discussion. It avoids the unhelpful and sometimes conversation-stopping question “What is this poem about?” entirely, focusing instead on form, events, and mood. If some terms are unfamiliar, this provides a good opportunity for a workshop leader to introduce literary concepts.

These same questions can also provide structural guidance to advanced individuals or workshop groups, reminding them of some subtle distinctions in the art of giving and receiving helpful feedback (including to oneself.) Ultimately, the ability to give and receive feedback well lends itself to an improved ability to revise one’s work, which in turn leads to the ability to craft more compelling and meaningful poems. Hopefully, asking these questions can help you to take a few more steps along that path.