On Revision

I don’t mean the sort of revising that is part of the usual process of writing a poem. I’m thinking more about the revising of poems that have already appeared in print. If you’ve ever seen Galway Kinnell read, you might have noticed the margins of the book he’s reading from filled with pencil scrawls. For Kinnell, there’s no such thing as a finished poem. If he has the impulse to revise an old poem while preparing for a reading (or even during the reading itself!), he goes ahead and does so, right there on the printed page.

I love Kinnell’s work, and what’s more, I would never tell any writer his process is wrong. But I wonder, if you were to track the various versions of his revisions through Kinnell’s books, what would you find?

This excerpt from a Q&A with Eavan Boland on the Smartish Pace website captures exactly my misgivings:

I think there’s always a charged relation between a writer and their early work. At least there is in my case. It’s hard not to see the flaws, the awkwardness and feel somewhat the same as when you see an early photograph of yourself. You think–why did I wear that? How did I let myself look at the camera like that? But it’s a misplaced self-consciousness: You aren’t–and you never will be again–the person who wrote those poems. The most vivid evidence you get of that is when you’re putting together a Selected Poems, as I did some years ago. You have to make a conscious effort to leave the poems alone that should be left alone. There’s a temptation to take poems that you wrote in your twenties and give them the smoothness or understanding you have in your forties. And it can become a kind of forgery.

— Eavan Boland, in her Smartish Pace Q&A

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If you’re a blogger interested in hosting a Tupelo poet via Q&A of your own, or a book review, or something of your own devising, and just haven’t gotten around to saying so, it’s not too late. Email me at mgauthier [at] tupelopress [dot] org and throw your name in the ring. Write now, before it falls off your to-do list.

And if you’ve written already, don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you — only hoping to add a few more participants to the list. I really love this batch of new books, I want to get them in the hands of as many readers as I can. Besides these titles just released there are these coming out soon — such terrific poetry and poets!

from Poor-Mouth Jubilee, by Michael Chitwood:

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3 thoughts on “On Revision

  1. This post, and particularly Eavan Boland’s comments on old work, is very timely for me. I was going through all my work over the weekend — old, new & inbetween — trying to get more organized. I found myself looking at old poems, nitpicking, groaning, and thinking “Why did I even write this??” Yes, much like old photos. Thanks for the reminder that old poems are part of the journey.

  2. There’s a lovely line by Tom Lux about how he wishes he could revise every line he’s written — and published. I’ve had many smack-on-the-head moments myself, and feel grateful that I didn’t rush to publish a book before I’d gotten those things as ironed out as I could. Now, though, if only I COULD publish a book …

  3. Molly, part of the journey, yes! It’s okay to let them go. Move on, start fresh.

    Emma, some editor/contest judge is going to fall in complete love with your MS any day now, I just know it!

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