Sunday, November 19, 2006


About two weeks ago a student appeared in my doorway and asked if I would look at a poem that he had written. I knew this young man by sight, and happened to know his name, but I had never had him in class.

The poem turned out to be six or eight lines long, describing the narrator's feelings as he sits and listens to the movements and noises of birds circling overhead. The poem was, as first drafts of student poems tend to be, somewhat uneven. There was one very specific image of the birds jabbing the air with their beaks. There were a number of vaguer, more generalized lines, and my suggestion to the student was that he cut some of those fuzzy lines out and try to generate some more concrete, specific images that would have the same impact as the strong line about the birds. I suggested he might want to take another piece of paper, write eight or ten sense-oriented lines quickly, and then select two or three of those lines to insert in his poem.

The student looked at me in befuddlement. "Is it all right to do that?"

"To do what?"

"To change your poem after you've written it."

"Why would it not be okay to change your poem after you've written it?"

"Well, I've always thought that good poems were supposed to be spontaneous. You know, like, "First thought, best thought?"

I spent the next ten or fifteen minutes attempting to disabuse the student of the notion that good writing is something that happens automatically. Once in a blue moon, perhaps, a writer may sit down like Coleridge awakening from his opium-induced dream and dash off a work of transcendent literary merit, but for most good writers, and for most of the rest of us mere mortals, reality is much more mundane. So I put aside my existential questions (like How does one get to be a junior in high school in what is purported to be one of the better private schools in American and have no notion that poets are allowed to revise?) and trotted out what evidence I had at hand to give him an alternative way of thinking about revision.

I showed him Yeats's poem "After Long Silence,"
Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

and then showed him what Yeats started with:

Your hair is white
My hair is white
Come let us talk of love
What other theme do we know
When we were young
We were in love with one another
And therefore ignorant.

(The draft is cited by Richard Ellman in his book The Identity of Yeats (280), and has been much anthologized since then.)

I showed him the photocopies of the 50 pages of drafts of Randell Jarrell's poem "Jerome," which were collected and published in the book Jerome: The Biography of a Poem (Grossman, 1971) by his wife after his death.

I showed him the passage in David Huddle's terrific essay "Let's Say You Wrote Badly This Morning" where he says

Revision is democracy's literary method, the tool that allows an ordinary person to aspire to extraordinary achievement.

And I showed him my all-time favorite quotation about revision, from Donald Hall, writing in regard to a poem called "The Black-Faced Sheep" (in David Berg's Singular Voices

Things come together—or they seem to, which is enough. If I am patient with a poem, things will come together..."The Black-Faced Sheep" took between two and three years, more than a hundred drafts.

Lately, poems have not been coming so quickly.

That last line kills me.

Anyway, the student seemed genuinely surprised by this strange new set of ideas. He went away and worked on his poem, and came back with a redraft, which we talked aout again. Yesterday he came in with a new poem. I'd like to believe he's on his way to becoming a better writer. At least he's working at it.

1 comment:

Shyrl said...

yes, the conjunction between divine inspiration and perspiration is such a fluid one, and the dimensionality easily can be lost for students because usually, when literature is taught, or at least as I remember being taught it when I was younger, it is as product rather than as process...divine art born metaphorically out of the artistic zeus' forehead...