Visions and Revisions
An unpublished essay by Dean Blehert
My view on revision is fairly simple: A poem is a communication from a person to another person or many people (some not born yet, perhaps). I don’t write it having in mind some absolute. If it communicates, fine. If, looking it over as I write or after it’s written, I find something that doesn’t communicate well to me (and I try to read it as a reader, not as the writer), then I try to make it better. When I feel it communicates – gets across, or will to the reader I imagine or does to most people I try it out on, then I leave it alone. If, later, I pick it up and I see a way to improve it, I change it. At what point do I consider it complete, a finished poem? When I first write it down. And also when I’ve changed it. And also when I change it again. There isn’t really any revision process. I just write it, and then, later, if I feel like it, I change it. In most cases, if I want to send it somewhere or read it to people, I read the latest, but not always. Sometimes I keep it in several forms, because I like the earlier ones in certain ways.
But this really misrepresents my approach, since in most cases I write a poem, and if, on rereading or trying it out on others, I see serious weaknesses, I fix, but more likely, if I don’t care for it, I just put it aside and write other poems. It’s only a few that I bother to revise at all. As I say, it’s a communication, like “Hello,” and if a “hello” misfires (gets ignored or gets a cursory, unfelt reply), I don’t usually hound the addressee, running after him/her, saying “No, really, I mean it, hello!” I just move on and say hello to someone else.
If I put some time into writing a poem, then read it over and find it missing something, if it isn’t obvious to me what’s needed, I set it aside and work on other things, maybe pick it up again and read it newly years later, at which point it’s usually obvious to me what’s wrong with it or what’s right with it. The parable (New Testament) of the sower who sows his seeds, and some fall on the road, others on bad soil, a few on good soil where they take root – that’s more or less my approach. I’ve written a great deal. If I write something that doesn’t work, in some other poem I’ll do it better.
Usually my best poems have needed little or no revision.
I generally ignore the idea that less is better. I more often add to a poem than cut it.
Re good or bad repetition: I prefer to have my readers more awake and alert at the end of the poem rather than less so. I prefer, in other words, not to be hypnotic, but to rouse people out of hypnotic trances. Therefore I tend to avoid chant-like poems, unless I’m intending to parody same. But I do have anaphoric poems (each line beginning with the same words), formal metered and rhymed poems (repeated measure and sounds) and other elements of repetition. It’s good when it works the way I want it to. ANY element of form involves some sort of predictability (which implies or at least hints at repetition). What’s needed is enough variation to fend off trance or sleep. Art requires a balance of repetition with variation or of familiarity with originality or of recognition with surprise – these are all different expressions of one dichotomy. Recognition, familiarity, repetition, predictability: Too much is a bore. But some is needed to draw the reader in and set up the surprises. If you think of a totally UNfamiliar work of art (as if absolutes were attainable), it would be impossible for a reader to get a foothold or mindhold in it. Nothing to connect to. Even using words is convention – an element of familiarity. So is using alphabet letters. So is expecting significance to arise from marks on blank paper.
Art sets up expectations, then meets and/or disappoints them, and at its best moments does both at once – something utterly surprising that, even as one is shocked by it, one realizes it is inevitable, had to be exactly what it is, recognition and amazement seeming simultaneous, an unexpected note that resolves all that came before, and in some works of art, sections where each word or each note or each viewing (of a painting, for example) produces that surprise-recognition, the two always together, yet always apart, the distance held between them generating a huge, yet subtle energy. It’s a real energy, as with any battery, obtained by holding two terminals apart, a plus and a minus. I suppose when these moments come note by note or word by word, it’s analogous to multiple orgasm, where the two elements that fascinate are pain and pleasure, or, perhaps, physicality and spiritual intimacy.
Repetition is usually on the recognition side. On the other hand, seemingly endless repetition (like a child chanting a word over and over) becomes chaotic rather than (or as well as) hypnotic and could move over to the surprise side of the ledger – that hall-of-mirrors effect.
I never bother to note, when looking at my own poems, whether repetition (or any other bit of technique) is good or bad. Simply not how I think when I write or revise. I look at whether I’ve said what I intended to say and said it well. If I’m critiquing someone else’s poem and find the use of repetition stultifying or too obvious or leaning too heavily on someone else’s use of repetition (someone trying to rewrite the Wasteland and seeming pretentious to me) I’m more likely to say something about repetition. Technique is something I try to make my own, then forget about when I’m writing. It’s like learning to talk (as a baby), then later not having to pay attention on how to move my tongue, teeth and lips to form the words.
Usually repetition works best for me when it is used to underscore or intensify differences. For example, I have one poem (“Why I Am Not A Serial Killer”) with some 70 verses, each beginning with “Because…” – but introducing a variety of reasons that usually keeps readers on their toes – reasons varying in length, seriousness, ridiculousness, silliness, profundity, etc. Similarly, when I use traditional meter (for example, iambic pentameter) I try to work with and against the meter – while not losing it. (The best example of this I know of is a sonnet, “No Worst, There Is None”, by George Manley Hopkins).
Copyright c. 2011 by Dean Blehert. All Rights Reserved