Feedback and Revision

“You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin.”

-Stanley Kunitz

Peter Sears gave a dense and compelling talk today on the larger aim of revision–which is not only to add and subtract from a work, but to also to re-envision. Drawing on numerous specific examples from talented poets, including himself, he held up a litany of mediocre poems made great through craft–from minor tinkering to dramatic shifts in perspective and tone.

The most striking example to me was one of Peter’s own poems, which he expanded by pushing it out beyond the bounds of the natural ending of a decent poem, into far more personal territory. Then, he pared down again, and those newfound details caused the poem to fuse into something at once both more specific and universal than before. It galvanized the poem.

It occurs to me, fresh from workshop, that one of the inherent perils of taking feedback about one’s own work from a group, is that the primary instrument at the group’s disposal is subtractive. That is, they can cut–but it would be presumptuous to actually add lines to someone else’s poem. Also, as Marvin Bell points out, groups often naturally tend toward compromise, the stuff of mediocrity.

Fortunately, at the Pacific residency workshops, the faculty encourage us to look at the work more holistically, and often use certain elements of a poem to address larger themes in the group’s work, or poetry in general. In the end, it is on us authors to discover the ultimate destination behind every wild impulse that starts a poem. But having, rather than a trail guide to follow through specific terrain, instead tips from experienced travelers who have walked many trails–is what makes this process invaluable.