Revising Older Poems — It’s Never Too Late to Take Another Look

[This article appeared first in April, 2012.]

April is National Poetry Month. Feeling a little badly that I hadn’t started new poems to celebrate the month, I decided to look through old files in a computer folder labeled “archived poems.” I had completely forgotten some of the drafts I’d created. When I read them, I thought, “Why hadn’t I stuck to doing something with these?”

What had gone wrong in the drafts seemed worth investigating now. The poems I looked at were all older than 20 years. (Thank you to my husband Kurt for bringing my work over each time I replaced a computer!) It seemed to me that the time had come that I could figure out a way to finish the poems by sorting out sounds and images that formed the threads the poems wanted to weave and weeding out or replacing ones that were distracting or diluting.

I know that when I first write a poem, I am often reluctant to part with the sounds I have created, reluctant to leave specific images I have included behind. Some of the images in the poems I was looking at from my files were confusing. Some were dampening the message of the poem or bottling it up. Whereas revision can be unsettling when you are close to the moments from which poems arise, after many years, revising is much easier — not because you know how things turned out (that wouldn’t be fair to the poem you had created or to its occasion — you need new poems to tackle later events and insights) but because you can see where you didn’t stay focused and didn’t dig into the situation, and where, in the poetic mood you were in, you wrote a sort of overlay that might have thrilled you with its sound but actually creates confusion in the poem’s logic.

It’s never too late to take another look at what you couldn’t finish earlier in your writing. Hopefully, you won’t wait decades to do revisions, but if you must, it’s still worth it. The skills you gain over the years, in addition to the distance, help bring earlier poems to fruition. It’s always important to keep incomplete starts and the pieces you might have sent out to editors only to have had them returned.

Here are four drafts from the files I found and four revisions with my comments on why I chose to delete lines and stanzas and add new ones, change titles sometimes and, other times, work on the line breaks, too. My hope is that reading my revision process on these drafts, you will be encouraged to find more in your poetry than you could excavate at the time of originally writing the lines. The revision process may likely be more gentle than a radical overhaul, easier than you could have imagined when you were initially working so hard.

Poem 1: Gift of Pumpkins

In the early 80s, I wrote this poem sparked by the size of the leaves growing in my garden and the fact that the vines were yielding four pumpkins, one each for my children and the children of a man with whom I was in a relationship.

Version 1:

Gift of Pumpkins

They have taken over the lawn
with leaves broad as elephants’
ears and tendrils  like corkscrews.
The vines have poked their way
through the chain link fence.

Our children love it,
a jack-o-lantern for each,
the two that came with me,
the two of yours.

I remember last fall,
Hannah on your lap,
Sarah happy with a dull knife,
Seth maddened by Emily’s pride
in the grin she carved.

“Reconstituted”, I’m told,
they call the family we might become
or “blended” though we’re often not smooth,
more like vines loping across the lawn,
and determined as children checking
for tinges of orange,
the ripening of mid-September.

As I read the poem draft, I found that I was not sure what year the poet was in — at first I thought I was looking at the vines and leaves of the poem’s current year’s pumpkins and then I seemed to be remembering the same time the year before. I realized that I might be looking forward to a replay of the pumpkin carving ritual, but I no longer understood why that was important to the emotional moment of the poem — recognizing that neither reconstituted nor blended were the right terms for what this consolidation of family was feeling like to me. Looking for some ripening seemed like the best metaphor coming from the images, and that did not necessitate knives coming into the poem (aren’t dull ones sometimes more dangerous than sharp ones — did I want to introduce another concept into this poem?) or competitions between the children, though that observation and memory could certainly have sparked other poems. Additionally, I did not think I needed to both introduce that the poet and the you both had two children if I was going to name them. A choice was necessary — naming or numbering.

Version 2:

Here’s the recent remake, made nearly 25 years later:

Gift of Pumpkins

They have taken over the lawn with leaves
broad as elephants’ ears and tendrils
like corkscrews. The vines have poked
their way through the chain link fence.

Our children love it, a jack-o-lantern
for each, the two that came with me,
the two of yours.  “Reconstituted,” I’m told
they call the family we might become
or “blended,” though we’re often not smooth,
more like the children checking for tinges
of orange, the ripening of mid-September.

I felt like the ground the poem covers was enough — it questions the terms for a new kind of family and evokes the stumbling but hopeful quality of making a new family from two separate ones. It doesn’t need to go back to a previous year to make its point that forming the family is a process with outcome unknown. But in this moment of having enough pumpkins, things seem hopeful under our watchful and eager eyes.  I was also more pleased by a chunky group of stanzas with slightly longer line lengths. A  kind of gift box rather than an emulation, perhaps, of the vines. A matter of taste.

Poem 2: Involuntary Termination

Version 1:

Here’s the draft I had abandoned:

Involuntary Termination

Still in my dreams you appear before me,
dark overcoat and Greek sailor’s cap,
briefcase on the desk, leather and latch.

You made a gift of hours at dials and screens
creating a video of my play, tilled a garden with me
under cherry blossoms, smiled at the wealth
of petals on the ground.

I water a drought in my mailbox, sift music
over my silent phone, walk in the heavy
boots of grieving.  When I linger in the lengthening
daylight, I smell pine needles and cedar bark,
think of angles and changing distances, how love
is like a program, our names together and rising and gone.

It had been a long time since this relationship ended, but I liked the metaphor at the end of the poem about our time together being captured by the movement of credits at the end of a program. As I read the draft, I thought it needed only some word changes to satisfy me. I was not sure why I said “water the drought in my mailbox.” Did I insert a hose, the literal reader inside asked. Why didn’t I describe the action more literally and less poetically — that would be stronger. So many years later after suffering losses due to death, grieving a relationship breaking up hardly seemed to require as much as grieving the deaths of beloved relatives. Why not the word “parting” instead of the word “grieving?” Why did I linger in the lengthening daylight, I wondered. What was important to the poem about that action, and why did I introduce the smell of pine needles and cedar bark to ultimately compete with light and angles and distances that are more in keeping with videography? Why did I think I had to tell the you what the you did? It seemed more sensible not to address the you but to just report what I was doing, thinking, remembering.

Following this line of reasoning, I played with word choice and sentence structure and came away with a tighter two-stanza poem that I thought better evoked the parting.

Version 2:

Involuntary Termination

Still in my dreams you appear before me,
dark overcoat and Greek sailor’s cap,
briefcase on the desk, leather and latch,
making a gift of hours at dials and screens
creating a video of my play, tilling a garden
with me under cherry blossoms, smiling
at a wealth of petals on the ground.

Now I check the drought in my mailbox,
sift music over my silent phone, walk
in the heavy boots of parting.
Spring’s lengthening daylight makes
me think of angles and changing distances,
how love is like a program’s credits, the names
together and rising and gone.

Poem 3: Together

Version 1:

I saw a poem title in my files that interested me: “After the Rain, Stars.” I didn’t have a recollection any longer of writing this:

After the Rain, Stars

Pine needles, pine cones,
our marks in the grass.
Knuckles, hilltops,
shoulders in moonlight.

Hmm. I seemed to have been working with sound and rhythm and hoping that lists and juxtaposition might a poem make. What was this poem about? Staying together after a sad time or a time of conflict?

What if I re-titled the work “Together” and used the after phrase of the title in the body of the short poem? Why did I put knuckles in the poem? I see that I was trying to bring the bodies of the two lovers into the scene by comparing their shoulders to the hilltops or hilltops to shoulders, but wouldn’t it be enough to let three images resonate with one another to evoke pleasure?

Version 2:

Together

After the rain, stars,
our marks in the grass,
the hilltops in moonlight.

I was surprised to see that I had, without thinking about it, almost followed the syllable count rules of haiku, 5-5-7. I am one syllable short in the last line. But the third line does in some way “oppose” the first two as is traditional in haiku and many English speaking writers don’t think tight adherence to the syllable rules has to be strict.

Poem 4: New in Town

I came across a poem written about a geographical move I had made early in my second marriage. Although the poem was written in the very early 90s, I instantly remembered how odd it felt to suddenly be new in town after 20 years of living in Seattle.

Version 1:

New in Town

Nearby trumpet vines bloom in a courtyard
where business people sit at white tables
drinking espresso, pollen dusting their sandwiches.

My son runs electric trains in the hardware store
while our cat sleeps in the new apartment,
tired from so much shedding.

Was focusing on the fact that the people in the courtyard were business people help the poem? I wasn’t working then and felt unaccustomed to not having a job, but was that what the poem wanted to explicitly state?  What did it mean that the pollen was dusting the business people’s sandwiches and that they were having espresso, other than that it was a popular drink both where I’d come from and where I’d moved? Was my son on his own the hardware store? How old was he? Why was the cat shedding a lot?

How could I write from this moment in my life without raising distracting questions the poem was obviously not going to fulfill? How could I center on what I was doing there that day rather than on what others were doing? Asking these questions, I suddenly remembered a remark a woman had made that left me feeling disheartened and like I had no real place where I had just moved. I thought of where I had walked many times as I was learning my way around Berkeley. I realized that for the purposes of this particular poem, even if my son, who was in junior high then, had walked with me that day after I’d finished my espresso and he had grown bored with the model train exhibit, it would be fine to concentrate on just me taking in the sensory information and combining it with my state of being then.

Version 2:

New in Town

The cat sleeps in our new apartment
unaccustomed to the heat,
tired from so much shedding.

I don’t know yet what I’ll do
here, bringing coals to Newcastle
as one contact describes my teaching.

I sit awhile under trumpet vines
in a courtyard  where pollen
dusts the sandwiches, then

walk to the pier and touch
San Francisco Bay, resolving
to buy kites, fly them in the wind.

I remembered that feeling when I’d first moved as if it were now — not much to do, not much I was connected with, just me without a role out there feeling my way by letting my senses do the work: heat, exotic flowers, a dusting of yellow on food, new body of water, wind.

****

Poem, Revised, from Marion Street Press, is one in a sparse lineage of books written to allow aspiring poets a peek into the revision work of professional poets. With discussions of revising 54 poems, the book is a treasure. The poets’ discussions can help you move from starts and drafts to finished work more quickly than you would have without reading the insights of these poets and studying their examples. For encouragement and help in looking at poems that you are writing now or poems that haven’t made it out of your files, the book offers needed inspiration. revising.

In their introduction, the editors quote several of the poets on their processes. One of my favorites is this one from Ernest Hilbert: “After I baked my first draft, I let it sit on the windowsill to cool a while.”  The thing is, for some poems, that while might be months, even years, possibly decades. Still, it is well worth it to revisit those drafts.

Page 200 in Poem, Revised has Ernest Hilbert’s contribution concerning the writing of his poem “Magnificent Frigatebird.” More of his words struck me, “Had I scribbled this? Needless to say, it did not seem like a great deal to work with, but the tone and central images were there.”

It is like this for all of us. We do the best we can when we can–writing is a back and forth process, from beginner to more seasoned, from beginning drafts to more complete ones. What I’ve learned is that it is always worth it to stick to a poem, even if that comes after abandoning it for decades.

This poetry month, may you write new poems, of course, but may you also enjoy looking into earlier poems you never finished to find the gems inside them that you can unearth now, polish and shape.

 

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Comments

Revising Older Poems — It’s Never Too Late to Take Another Look — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks, Sheila! I really need to revisit those past starts. The article reminded me of something David Wagoner said almost every time I turned in a poem: “Three more lines, Miss Tierney.” I inevitably quit before I reached the place where the poem resided. If I pushed through the three-line wall I usually brought it off. Sallie

Leave a Reply