Let’s be honest right up front. You probably don’t enjoy revision. I don’t think many writers do. Revision is not really all that fun a process. If writing the poem in the first place is an act of birth (painful in itself), then revision is raising the teenager—long, seemingly never ending, and always with the potential that you’re going to completely ruin it. “First thought, best thought,” the Beats said. But if you’ve read the Beats, you know they were often more interesting in theory than in the actual read.
You may turn out some solid first drafts. Sometimes the muse is simply with you, and she fills your head with every single right word, and they flow through your finger tips and onto the page/through the keyboard, and you know, in that moment, you’ve created a singular masterpiece.
Then you usually wake up to realize you overslept.
Most writers are their own worst critics, and our sense of what is our best work is something that we have to develop over time and may never have a full grasp of. The more we write—and especially the more we publish—the more we hopefully begin to develop a sense for what we do that works properly and what needs more attention. We also, eventually, begin to develop an instinct for what should simply be allowed to let go and go into “the box.” The Box is the place in which mediocre and bad ideas can go to rest where they will never see the light of day unless you become such a world-class writer that your papers are one day collected, catalogued, and archived, and then only the true scholars will see what you wrote, and they will think, “This must have been something his kid did—he was better than this.”
And they will think you were a wonderful parent for holding on to your kid’s second-rate poem.
While you will actually have points, as you develop in your writing ability, in which the first thing that springs from your mind will be fully-formed and perfect (it does happen), more often than not you will need to do anything from some low-level tweaking to full-on invasive surgery with your poem. So let’s examine what revision is about.
I’m not going to try to prescribe how you should revise. This is a process that works differently for different people. Some people are comfortable spending a week debating the usage of a comma versus a dash. Other people want to have their poem freed up from that kind of intensive scrutiny. In the end, the process of revision should fit into your process of writing, and it should be something that maintains the same level of pleasure within it that the act of the initial writing does for you, otherwise it will wear out its welcome in your life and you will find reasons to avoid work altogether.
So rather than discussing how to revise, let’s talk about why to revise. The initial writing of a poem should be about the content—the message. Your first draft, whatever form it takes, should be about making the statement—content should supersede everything. If you are a formalist, form may start to present itself in the first draft, but you shouldn’t be wracking your brain in that initial pass to make everything fit into the prosody straight jacket—the meaning will suffer if you do. Let the mind and the muse put the message on the page and then start dealing with the mechanical aspects of it later. If you want to use an automobile analogy (something that is a bit ironic coming from me), cars are not built inside and outside at the same time. The functional parts of it need to be put together and in working order before the body is built and shined.
Revision should be the process where you return to that statement and make it more powerful—you sharpen the language and the presentation. Whatever means you use in order to do it, your goal is to make the poem the best that it can be. You’re not aiming to strip it of the character that makes it your poem. You’re not trying to take a first draft and then make it into Billy Collins or Louise Gluck or Sharon Olds. You’re taking your first draft and making it into the completed and final vision of Your Poem.
I will admit that I’m a lousy revisionist. I am not the surgical technician who goes back into his poems and examines every syllable and punctuation mark and excises with stunning accuracy while leaving behind the perfectly formed end product. In fact, when it comes to revision, I have a tendency to just write the poem over again. I do a second first draft. Later on, I do a third first draft. If it’s a difficult poem to write, there winds up, at some point, being a fourth first draft. I don’t look at the original. I let my brain do the job of remembering the parts that stuck with me the most, but I reinvent the way of presenting the message. Sometimes I write the same poem four or five times. These are not in rapid succession, and it isn’t necessarily with the intent that I am writing the same poem. What happens is I find myself writing about the same topic again, and the message that emerges is one that has come before, and often this revisiting of it is a stronger version. The language tightens; the imagery becomes more vibrant; the effectiveness of the overall poem comes to the fore.
That’s my version of revising, at least when it comes to the global level. To parse through a draft and tackle individual stanzas or portions of stanzas isn’t an approach that works for me, and in the end my poem tends to sound like it’s been Frankensteined—pieces and parts stitched together, some of the seams still showing. To avoid that, when I am working on that global level—that level where I am correcting the overall poem and its thrust and effectiveness, I don’t take a surgical route. It’s simply not something that works with my make-up. For some people, this may seem like far more trouble than it is worth—revisiting and rewriting a poem time and again until it seems to accomplish what I need it to—but I feel the same way about the careful tinkering with line after line and then looking back to see if they still fit together and getting frustrated when they don’t.
This is not to say that I don’t have a stage of revision that is more surgical. I just save it for the micro-level. This is the point where I know the message is there, and it’s as effective as it’s going to get from doing global passes at it. That’s the point when I start to pick at it. Are there repetitions or redundancies? Do I say the same thing several times over that could just as easily be said once? Do I choose the exact words, or have I opted for less specific ones that aren’t holding the weight they need to? What about connotations as opposed to just simple meanings? Because I have focused so much energy in the global revisions, this stage is relatively brief for me. At best it’s a pass or two through the poem.
One of the things that helps most in this phase of revision is reading the poem out loud. This is when you’ll hear the music of the language you have used, and you’ll also catch the places where it stumbles, falls off the beat, or plays flat. Sometimes I record the poem and then listen to it so I hear it without being distracted by reading it at the same time. This way my brain doesn’t get the chance to fill in what I thought was there when it didn’t actually make the page. This is the most difficult part in doing your own editing—the point where you are reading what you think you wrote as opposed to what you actually wrote. This is the missed words, the repetitions that came off so casually you didn’t notice them until they poke their head into the rhythm of the poem and seem to glare.
The easiest work-around for avoiding that tendency to read what isn’t actually there is time. Put the poem away for a bit. Let the newness wear off. Your fascination with it needs to dim a bit. Everyone thinks they have the most adorable baby in the world the day it’s born. Eventually it shits its pants though, and you realize the baby is not perfect. Let your poem have a chance to fill its pants. Pull it out of the drawer after a week or two, strip off the diaper, and then start cleaning it up. That’s the point when you’re most likely to see the flaws while still remembering most clearly what your original intent was in the first place.
So that’s my advice on revision. It’s probably not the best advice you could have in the world—I admitted I am not a great revisionist—but hopefully somewhere in all of this (between analogies to building cars or shitty baby diapers) there was something that helps you in the process of revising your own poetry. If you have questions or suggestions, post them in the comments section and I will do my best to respond to everyone.