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.