Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Revising Poetry

To be a poet of any worth whatsoever, you have to revise, revise, revise. Rare is it that the first things that come out are gems. Let me give some personal examples.

One summer I wrote a sonnet a day without really understanding the form. I have been revising those poems for a while, and while I am finding that some revisions hold the sonnet form, others result in new forms. Consider the following original (sonnet) and revision (villanelle):

Lost Time

We waste time and we spend it – what’s it cost?
We pass the time and fill the time, there’s no
Lack of excuses for all the time lost
(Even as Proust searched for it we all know
It can never be recovered again) –
What we never seem to want to renew
Among all the filler and endless din
Is to make up for all the time that flew
From tree to tree until we could not see
Where all the time had gone. Do we have time
Enough for love? – or is it on the sea,
Caught up in its rhythm, or in this rhyme?
Despite the time we’ve spent together, I
Wonder where the time’s gone, and wonder why?

Lost Time

We waste time, spend time, fill and pass the time
We’re trapped in all its waves and ebbs and flows –
We’re caught up in its rhythms and its rhyme.

We treat time like it doesn’t cost a dime
When we’re in debt to it. Lord only knows
We waste time, spend time, fill and pass the time.

Our minds and bodies are set to its chime,
Connected more to poetry than prose:
We’re caught up in its rhythms and its rhyme.

We think we can control it, then we mime
All that has come before: it’s all a pose –
We waste time, spend time, fill and pass the time.

When will we learn to use it as a prime
And natural source of life, which always shows
We’re caught up in its rhythms and its rhyme.

We’re monkeys in the tree of time and climb
The limbs, the places where each of us grows.
We waste time, spend time, fill and pass the time –
We’re caught up in its rhythms and its rhyme.

Now, I'm not saying that the villanelle is a great poem, but I think we can agree that it's better than the sonnet from which it was derived. Such a drastic revision makes this a new draft, so it probably has to undergo some more revision (and suggestions are, of course, welcomed), but I think I'm moving in the right direction with this particular poem.

With my sonnet "Wedded" I transformed the poem from a sonnet into a blank verse poem with a rhyming couplet at the end. Here is the sonnet:


In an old white Dutch Masters cigar box
Lies what looks like a Bible, tiny, white,
Pink silk flowers and a gold cross that locks
Away a secret that slips out, a sight
I had not seen, but heard about, a ring
Not a ring – a tab from an old pop can,
The tab my dad gave my mom, that would bring
Them together in marriage, and began
The life that ended in her too-early
Death by cancer, asbestos brought to her
On clothes by her husband unknowingly
From his work. Still, I know that she’d prefer
To have lived this same life over again,
Beginning with this little tab of tin.

Here is the revised poem:

The Engagement Ring

Although my parents never smoked cigars
Or even cigarettes, I have their white
Dutch Masters cigar box, and wonder what
It holds. I lift the lid and look inside –
I find a small white Bible there with pink
Silk flowers and a golden cross that locks
Away a secret. This false Bible is
A box that holds a metal object I
Had never seen, but heard about, a ring
That’s not a ring – a pull tab from an old
Pop can, that tab my dad gave to my mom
When he asked her to marry him. She slipped
It on and told him yes and cut him on
The thumb with it when she gave him a kiss.
This tab brought them together for a life
That ended in her early death by cancer,
Asbestos brought to her as dust by her
Beloved on his clothes unknowingly
From work, destroying her through her weak lungs.
But still, I know that she’d prefer to live
The life she did with this same death again
Beginning with this little tab of tin.

But not all my sonnets have changed form. Take the following sonnet:

Why Bother

Words fall silent on those you love the most,
Those who don’t are the most attentive.
At home you’re ignored or seen to just boast
About all you know. There’s no incentive
To share knowledge or wisdom, it will go
Unheard by those you most wanted to hear
Everything you had to say. And now so
Much harm falls upon those you hold so dear.
What should you expect? For Jesus himself
Said a prophet is not without honor
Save in his own country – full of the wealth
Of knowledge of you, even the horror
That you could possibly have within you
A wisdom they don’t, a knowledge that’s new.

Which I have revised into the following sonnet:

The Prophet at Home

The prophet’s words cannot be heard by those
Who love him most and know him growing up.
At home, they think you only boast – who knows
You as they do? They ask, “Who is this pup?”
Why share with them the wisdom you have gained?
It goes unheard, all that you wished to share –
Their inattentive ears have only pained
Their lives – but also you, because you care.
But those who do not know you are attentive
To what you have to say, and take the most
Of all your wisdom. They have an incentive
To listen – growing, they don’t think you boast.
For Jesus too said that a prophet’s not
Without his honor save with his own lot.

This revision has the sonnet's dialectical development, and resolution in the ending couplet. The subject suggested the retention of the sonnet form in this case, and I abided by that content-form connection. In the two above cases, there were elements in the original poems that suggested different forms, and I listened to them. In the case of the villanelle, though, I did have the form in mind and searched through the poems I had printed out to revise to see if any could fit the form.

What does all of this suggest about form and content? The two are undoubtedly connected, but which comes first? Is it always one, or the other? I am certain others have written poems in one form and then revised into another. Does the presence of the former form get remain somehow present, though transformed into a new form?

Of course, any suggestions regarding revisions are more than welcome!
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