Red Pen of Fury!
For me, the bulk of poetry composition is editing. You write a poem once, but you rewrite or edit it up to hundreds of times. That initial surge of inspiration and excitement is important. But if it’s true that execution rather than content determines a poem’s quality, then it’s those obsessive hours of subsequent swabbing and polishing that make or break the poem.
On occasion, I have been lucky enough to have a poem pop out almost fully formed. In those cases, I would argue, some sort of internal editing was going on before pen touched paper. For example, a great many of those poems were sonnets or something close to sonnets. That kind of form does a lot of editing for you, both before you write and as you write. It has a dominant hand in shaping, structuring, guiding, eliding, pulling you back from one brink and nudging you off another. By contrast, none of my longer and more free-form poems came out ready to go.
It could also be suggested that the life you’ve lived up until you start writing a poem is a kind of editor. Experience—toiling at the craft, tinkering with the motor, making mistakes and trying to fix them—has the same guiding hand as I’ve described the sonnet form having. In which case a poem that I start today will be inherently better in its first draft than a poem I started twenty years ago. There may be a small bit of truth to this suggestion. But I recoil from it, because it sounds like an invitation to laziness. It’s not fun to watch older luminaries dribble bad simulacra of their brilliant early stuff, and it’s easy to imagine them using the “experience is editing” mantra to justify such sloppiness.
So back to those poems—the great majority—in which editing is the bulk of the work. By “editing” I mean everything from rewriting utterly to revising heavily to polishing lightly to rereading without changing a thing. (Sometimes I will reread a poem five or six times, and am just about to declare it done, before discovering one tiny improvement I’d missed before. So those were not just five or six vanity passes to luxuriate in a completed work; they were still part of the edit.)
I can hammer out a first version of a poem very quickly. It’s usually terrible. Maybe twenty percent of the time it shows promise. After one or two rewrites, I abandon maybe half of those promising ones; only about ten percent of my attempted poems make it through the end of the editing process. So in order to produce verse at any kind of reasonable pace, I have to take many swings and misses. (Lately I haven’t been swinging so much, and I wonder if my best at-bats are behind me. But these things come and go in inscrutable waves.)
If you’re lucky enough to end up published, you get the chance to work with an editor other than yourself. However obsessively you’ve picked over your own stuff, you have blind spots and you’ve overlooked certain flaws. Guaranteed. It’s been my privilege and joy to work with a superb editor (and literary hero of mine), Stuart Ross. And thanks to that process, I developed what’s become my current focus while self-editing: weeding out the overtly poetic.
Sometimes Stuart will flag a passage and say something like, “This isn’t working—it looks like you made this word choice because it ‘sounds poetic’” Not only is he right, but—to my horror—that mannered turn of phrase has been invisible to me! A blind spot, revealed. I’ve internalized some of the clichés of contemporary poetry to the point that they simply spew out of me, much as a lifelong executive might spout phrases like “core values” and “going forward” without realizing how corporate she sounds. So I’ve been trying to identify my go-to “poeticisms” and excise them. Like writing to a set form, this can be a fruitful restriction.
That’s my current particular editing focus, but it’s only one of many things the self-editor must look out for. Clunky phrases; unintended repetition; redundant words; forced rhymes; pointless stanzas; bone-headed lapses in logic or syntax; mulish adherence to the logic of syntax; muddy bogs in the musical landscape; too cleanly musical a landscape; sterility; muck; stupidity; the overly clever. They all need to be hunted vigilantly, excised ruthlessly—or tended better, given more space to breathe, incubated properly like the maggots that consume and thereby define the casu marzu cheese.
Writing a poem is nice; it’s a pleasant diversion and it can make you feel boss about yourself. Much joy can be had brandishing the fountain pen or stabbing at the keyboard. But then the real work begins. An angry red marker, a delete button worn smooth—these are the tools of the poet’s trade.
At the Gates of the Theme Park (Mansfield, 2010) was a finalist for the Trillium Poetry Book Award. His new collection is Water Damage (Mansfield, 2013), and a third is forthcoming in 2015 from Goose Lane Editions. His novel, Emberton, was published this year by Douglas & McIntyre.
Peter, thanks for your fine article on editing. I hope many, many poets take it to heart.
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