When the poet Jerry Mirskin got wind of my poem-a-day project for Tupelo Press (perhaps from my email hitting him up for donations), he objected to the idea of writing and publishing (and offering to sell) poems created in a marathon. He said he sides with Louise Gluck, who he recalled saying in a workshop some time ago that it takes her about 6-8 weeks to write a poem. He also pointed out that even when accomplished poets attempted such marathons, “the results were poor.”
Of course, my first (and okay, abiding) reaction is defensiveness. But the real energy was anxiety. I was already edgy about being able to accomplish the rigors of producing a poem a day, and if I could, I now wondered, was it pointless?
I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems…. And it seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition… (from “Poetry and Ambition“)
These are juicy topics, ones anyone who makes art must engage and resolve for themselves, but let me leave aside the role of anxiety and the question of quality and our standards of excellence.
First, let me say right here before God and the whole gathered Internet assembly: I believe in revision. I love it. And I wonder if the workshop method of instruction is sufficient for teaching poets what it is and how it works. Does it only give a poet a fish rather than teaching him or her to revise poems?
In our textbook, Double Bloom: Exercises for Poets, Scott and I include a whole section on revision. (No defensiveness here.) Most exercise books focus on generation, but writers need to experience the delights of revision. It’s difficult to help writers move from the satisfaction of self-expression (which can be achieved in a single draft) to the delicacies of the craft, from the tears in the writer to tears in the reader. It means shifting a person’s sense of what a poem can be, how the process works, and where his or her loyalties lie (to the originating experience or to the language itself).
So I completely agree with Jerry when he says, “Poem-a-day exercises and improv. workshops seem to suggest that good writing is the expression of genius… and genius creates spontaneously.” I used to joke that I wasn’t very talented as a poet but I got better through the quality my Dad pointed out in some athletes and called “hustle.” I work at it, in part because I love the process.
I love taking endings and putting them first, of “translating” a statement into images or just stating it (“no ideas, but in things” ain’t no image!), and of paring and paring and paring. I love how mucking around with phrasing and line breaks, order and delay, and music can slowly or suddenly reveal the heart of a poem.
Working with a draft through multiple versions teaches me what it’s really about and what is essential in it. And then, I love the energy that surges as I begin to shape language around that discovery.
How long’s that take?
Can a reader tell if a poem evolved over 6-8 weeks, like Gluck says, or over ten years, as Horace advised (see part 9 of Donald Hall’s essay), or in a brief, concentrated rush, like Rilke’s single month, February 1922, when he produced not only the rest of the Duino Elegies which he’d labored over for almost a decade, on and off, but also all of the Sonnets to Orpheus—including 25 in just 3 days?
All this reveals another nexus where process gets tangled up with product, where how and how well intersect. Or seem to.
Here’s my challenge: Included among my 30 poems posted in June and up through July on Tupelo’s 30/30 site are 3 poems that I wrote and revised before the month started. If you can pick them out, you win a prize.
How’s that for ambition (and anxiety)?