Revising Poetry – example #1

In my last post, I promised to discuss some of Roger Desy’s revisions to his poem “in the light of snow.”  In his first revision, he mostly changes just the opening lines, so I will post first the original and then the 1st revision:


— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter the surface hiss of fields
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over a nightfall earth

— as permafrost preserves an arctic iridescence under tundra winds

a deeper intemperate radiance squalls near at hand over more fertile darkness


— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter a surface wisp of hiss
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over the onset darkness

— as frigid iridiscence preserves distant stillness over a terrain of glaze

facets of an insensitive whitening squall near at hand across a nightfall earth

The rest of the poem is more or less exactly the same as the original, except for a couple of other minor changes:  the change of a couple of words in the tenth line:  “dens” becomes “nests” and “under the lilac womb” becomes “under a lilac womb”; also, the addition of fertile in line 12 (“embedded in a pure serene hyacinth seamless fertile crytalline identity”).  I will begin, then, by commenting on these more significant changes to the opening lines.

In the first line, Roger changes “the surface hiss of fields” to “a surface wisp of hiss”.  The change from the definite to indefinite article (“THE surface hiss” vs. “A surface wisp”) may seem inconsequential but often makes a big difference in terms of what the poet calls attention to:  a specific instance (a “the”) as opposed to a more generalized phenomenon (an “a”).  I see why he changes “hiss of fields” to “wisp of hiss”:  if you speak the words out loud, you hear the assonance, the attention to sound that every poet should be paying as s/he crafts a poem.  I sometimes pay so much attention to sound that I find some sounds inappropriate or distracting in certain phrases.   The ‘”p” sound in “wisp” here has that affect upon me.  I like the “s” sounds in “surfaCe wiSp” and “hiSS,” but the “p” as a labial plosive (something like that–can’t remember the exact terms from my study of linguistics) is problematic for me.  The meaning of the phrase is a bit compromised as well:  what is a “wisp of hiss”?  The original, “surface hiss of fields” doesn’t approach the level of musicality that the revised phrase achieves, but it does preserve sense at the same time that the F sound preserves echoes from earlier in the line:  “fallen soft fierce snow.”  (The E sound in “fields” also anticipates the E sound of “leaf-thin light fall” — and here, again, are the echoes of the F sounds).  In some ways, the revised line brings too many S sounds into play, which draws a bit too much attention to the sound:  “preSSureS of fallen Soft fierCe Snow Scatter a SurfaCe wiSp of hiSS” (S sounds are capitalized throughout).

As you can see, there is much to consider in the crafting of a line, or even a single phrase!  And I know that Roger puts this level of thought and feeling into what he does, given the kinds of revisions he makes from draft to draft.

The next major revision is a kind of flip-flopping of phrases.  In the second line, he moves “a nightfall earth” to the end of the fourth line and replaces this with “the onset darkness” (a change to the original “more fertile darkness” that it replaces).  By moving this, he loses the assonance of the I sounds in “vIolet lIfe over a nIghtfall earth” (I sounds capitalized here).  I like the phrase “a nightfall earth” a lot and am glad he kept it–it’s a fresh phrasing.  I think it works in either location.

The third and fourth lines are also quite different from one another.  The original plays on P, R, and U sounds:  “peRmafRost pReseRves an aRctic iRidescence undeR tundRa winds” (R sounds capitalized).  The revised third line abandons this for heavy assonance on the soft I sound:  “frigid iridescence preserves distant stillness” and ends with assonance on the A sounds of “terrain of glaze.”  The fourth line of the revision also loses something in the rhythm when squall changes from a verb (as it is in the original) to the object of the preposition of:  “facets of an insensitive whitening squall near at hand…”  The original, in my opinion, is much more in line with the rest of the poem (the multiple modifiers piled up like the snow that the poem describes:  “deeper intemperate radiance squalls near at hand…”).

As I finish considering these changes, I have to say that I like the original version much better than the revisions.  The one revision that I do think enhances this version of the poem comes when he adds “fertile” to the 12th line, which provides the same effect I just described:  a kind of piling high of modifiers that mimics at the syntactic, formal level of the poem its content about snow:  “a pure serene hyacinth seamless fertile crystalline identity.”

Ultimately, though, such revisions reflect a poet’s careful attention to the craft of the art form, and final decisions have to be left to the individual as to what most satisfies his or her needs in writing the poem in the first place.


Featured Poem: “in the light of snow”

I introduce this poem in a previous entry titled “On Revising Poetry.”


— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter the surface hiss of fields
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over a nightfall earth

— as permafrost preserves an arctic iridescence under tundra winds

a deeper temperate radiance squalls near at hand over more fertile darkness

— dawn upon damson sun blown sudden golden shaken from bowed limbs bent
to breaking under the weight of individual infinitesimal vermilion clarities

— amber midmorning shards of light settle on tufts of drifts
in shadows of the temperatures setting-in — into the evening of the afternoon

— the dead of winter snowbound blankets the unborn within — newborn reside

swaddled in torpor under the lilac womb warm in the nests of their dens at rest

— humility a perfect deerprint cuts into the pomace of the selfless fields
embedded in a pure serene hyacinth seamless crystalline identity

— evening on snow — pregnant with silence — nuzzling the scent of slanted buds

listens to sibilance grazing the keenness of the last azure roseate crimsoning

What I find distracting about this version of the poem are the strings of prepositional phrases at certain points.  After using Lanham’s book Revising Prose as a textbook, I couldn’t fail to notice this.  His “paramedic method” suggests first of all circling all of the prepositions.  When you do this to the poem above, you notice that in the fifth stanza there is a string of prepositional phrases:  “amber midmorning shards of light settle on tufts of drifts / in shadows of the temperatures setting-in — into the evening of the afternoon” (six in a row here), followed by a stanza with another string:  “newborn reside / swaddled in torpor under the lilac womb warm in the nests of their dens at rest” (five in a row here).

Roger commented on his use of prepositional phrases, providing some perspective on the effect he was trying to achieve:

you refer to excessive prepositional phrasing.  you can’t get away with this in prose.  in this poem prepositions are a kind of marker for time.  the poem of course has to do with time and a sustained perception — from one evening to the next.

i say this so you know there’s lot of glue on those phrases.

lines 7 [the shortest line] and 8, following subject/verb, consist of six phrases, taking the eye and other senses through shifts of light that tend to resolve on the red end of the spectrum, where the poem begins and ends.

it’s a lush poem, a style i don’t often enter.  nothing like a dead end, but there’s no room to write this kind of poem every day.  i dread imitating myself.

i went searching for this poem this last week for other purposes.  two lines in it needed to be reviewed again [lines 3 and 4].  i wound up reviewing the poem and tightening it up.  the prepositional phrasing aspect is essentially unchanged.

(It’s interesting that he says you can’t get away with excessive prepositional phrasing in prose, because when you read the examples of academic jargonese that Lanham provides in his book, you suddenly realize that you’ve been inundated with it… And Lanham provides a concrete solution for avoiding such bureaucratization of language.)

I did compare this to the one he published in Albatross #18, and it *is* different from this other one–the use of dashes, the rhythms, the phrasing.  The attempt to capture time and sustained perception not only through the poem’s content but also through its form I found particularly interesting–though I’m not sure the use of prepositions as a marker for time is the way to go about this.  Having form reflect content is a powerful strategy, and I do think that the strings of prepositional phrases tend to elongate the moment being described.  However, I can’t ignore the fatigue that this induces in me as a reader, whether or not this is brought about by knowledge of Lanham’s paramedic method.

In the following passage, Roger speaks of rejection as an opportunity for revision.  I think we can learn from his positive attitude:

funny, but when i get my work rejected, i’ve come to look at it as an invitation to get it right.  i’ve learned more about my work by reviewing/revising it after rejection than i ever expected.  funny, but rejection works for me.  and i ought to have some insight, being the most rejected human being i know!

In future entries, I will post and discuss some of Roger’s proposed revisions.

On Revising Poetry

I will often like most of a poem that I receive as a submission but find that some parts (e.g. a word choice, a punctuation mark, a peculiarity of phrasing) are distracting and divert my attention from the kind of spell that a poem puts over its reader.  If there aren’t too many of these parts, I will accept the poem for publication only if the poet agrees to suggested changes that will, in my opinion, make it read better and easier.  Other times, there’ll be large chunks that need to be re-worked, and I will return the poem, asking the poet to work on the overall approach and resubmit with other poems.

I recently received one poem that reminded me of a book I used to teach when I taught writing at the college level.  The book by Richard Lanham is called Revising Prose (the title to this blog entry is meant to echo this book); it offers a “paramedic” method for revising prose, with concrete steps to perform.  I will post the poem in its entirety, as a “featured poem,” in a separate entry after this introduction.  Of course, I seek the permission of the poet before I do this.  I found the poet’s comments in response to my request relevant and of potential interest, and so I post them here:

you should know, though, when i submit a poem, i never want to be embarrassed by it.  which means i rely on it being finished.  but finished is one of the most relative words in the vocabulary.  i know for sure a poem should seem an inevitable result but never be so.  there is really nothing inevitable about a poem, from the first word to the poet moving on.  a poem is a series of words that makes better sense than otherwise or creates a satisfying sense of completion or fulfillment at least for the moment, though that series of words can change any number of ways.

which also means, when i send you a poem, it’s been worked on and worked out.

which is not to say i’m unaware of blemishes on a perfect face.  i see them in almost every poem i write.

many pass because we’re a forgiving species underneath it all and they can be part of the beauty.  but if i find myself looking at the same soft spot every time, trust me, it’s gone.

i look at revision as part of my job, part of the process — nothing original, but i look at revision as both rewriting and unwriting and writing again.  sometimes you just have to cut it off to be kind.

it’s a tough process, but by the time i’m done and willing to let it go out on its own, i’m not going to be embarrassed.  ihopeihopeihope!

The poet is Roger Desy.  I got a clear sense of his craft after reading this.  Here is a poet who takes his work–his working–seriously!  And his is a craft I appreciate, for I have published one of his poems before–“elm” in Albatross #18 (p. 20).  I offer his work-ethic as described above as a model for those submitting to Albatross. One thing is for sure–Roger has nothing to be embarrassed about.

But, despite all of his own efforts at revision before submission, there may be room for more revision once the poem comes into contact with an editor, one who approaches it differently, perhaps more freshly–certainly more innocently–as a kind of “expert” reader responding to the crafted work.

In my next entry, I will post the poem in its entirety and our further discussion about revision.