Sunday, November 19, 2006

Revision Again

Last week was Ted Kooser week in Hawaii. I attended a reading that he gave at UH on Monday night and an afternoon workshop at WCC on Wednesday. He had some interesting things to say about his practice.

He sits down early every morning with an artist's sketchbook and begins fooling around by sketching and writing down words and phrases that occur to him. When he has a group of words or phrases that interests him, he goes to the word process, types out those lines, and then pastes them back into his sketchbook, and then begins to do more doodling and building around them. He says that he often works a poem through 20 or 30 drafts, working "away from complications and toward clarity." The overall goal is to make the poem look like it was dashed off easily - and Kooser admits ruefully that some of his detractors assume that his poems are - but that offhandedness is the product of painstaking attention to every syllable.

By way of illustration, here's my one of my favorite poems from Delights and Shadows:


A farmhouse window far back from the highway
speaks to the darkness in a small, sure voice.
Against this stillness, only a kettle's whisper,
and against the starry cold, one small ring of blue flame.

This poem is typical of Kooser at his best: it's compact, clean, tight. It balances the intergalactic with the atomic, darkness and distance with light and presence, the world of nature with the world of man. It has the feel of a snapshot, of a poem which "just happened," but my guess is that it took a lot of work to bring it to this level of precision.

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