They were brought to the heat, and now they just might be ablaze. You be the judge.
In my last post, I talked about preparing for a writing performance and publishing opportunity happening in July. Originally approached for revision simply to reshape it for optimal total number of lines to comply with submission guidelines, one particular poem seemed finished to me otherwise.
But I have learned anew the truth of how good writing happens. It ain’t quick, and it ain’t easy. I think I’ve had a notion for a while that, because poetry is my favorite mode and the one I’ve received the most recognition for, I don’t have to work as hard at it compared to other writing. Nothing could be more false.
If, as Anne Lamott says in her book Bird by Bird, we’re to expect and get used to writing “sh**ty first drafts” in prose, the same applies to poetry. That may be an exaggeration, but the quality does have huge potential to rise with revision.
I also notice that the more time I spend with a poem, the greater tendency it has of becoming more formal in meter. The demands of rhythm take over, and I’m compelled to make it consistent across the poem. This is what has happened with my poem “Inspirator,” shared previously on this blog. There’s a lot of counting, yes, even using my fingers, to make sure lines are complete and don’t go over the set number of stresses, which in this case is seven.
What I see as improvements extend to:
- better word choice
- shorter sentences to get the point across sooner
- less reliance on other favorite words such as “bloat” and “forth” as in “bring forth” (I’ve noticed them in several of my poems)
- reduced number of hyphenated descriptors, a crutch of mine
- fewer needless words such as prepositions, some articles, and the pronoun “all,” another crutch
- removal of unneeded descriptors–by the 2nd-to-last line, the reader gets that the imagery is “fiery”; no need for another adjective just to use every way of saying it
- smoother phrasing that aligns with rhythm and is easier to say out loud
- clearer communication of meaning in individual images and overall
- closer connection between title and poem, using the word in the text
- less alliteration, a device best reserved for comedy or levity (not for this poem)
- closer attention to the reader’s journey through the field described, addressing the reader directly
- while the meter is not uniform in unstressed syllable use, there are exactly 7 stresses in every line, and I noticed alternation between starting lines stressed and starting unstressed, until the last stanza, which consists solely of iambic heptameter (unstressed, stressed; 7 stresses per line)
See if you can find some of those improvements and new features in the revised first stanza of the poem “Inspirator,” originally shared here:
Giddy feathers, beige but tall, perch unnamed fronds; their crowns
in fanned-out spikes sprout up to play both fire and ashy end.
Higher still, the color starts. Smooth leaves, chartreuse beneath,
grey-green their backs—or are they faces?—cast off half-domes,
masonry left homeless; unimpressed, the orphans bow
half-hearted honor, fractured praise, or simple nodding off.
which replaces the earlier version‘s:
Giddy beige feathers in
this field of tall, unnamed fronds
perched at a tilt, sprout their crowns
in fanned-out spikes, forging two things
into one: fire and ashy aftermath.
Two heads’ lengths above
these frozen flames,
the color starts.
Green, rounded leaves
of chartreuse underbellies
and grey-green backs, or faces—
I can’t tell which—huddle like
discarded half-arches, craft of the
stone mason who made too many,
just in case. A half-hearted bow
only at their very tops, partly
praising the fractional work.
Can you detect the following types of figurative language and literary device in the first one or last two stanzas of the poem?:
- fire imagery and theme
- metaphors – equivalences
- personification – giving inanimate objects human-like qualities
- theater/performance/façade/pretense theme
- breath/consumption and output themes
- irony – reversal of typical sense or connotation; appearance contrasting reality
- synecdoche – an expression in which part of something stands in for its whole, as in “hand” for a person’s help when “we need more hands for the project”
Some sky-bound spirit forages and slurps all this combustion,
pulling smoke from grey below; above, from yellow-white
sun fumes. The wind roars conflagration, feigns inspirator*,
while darker soot envelops lighter, breathing victory.
These pebbles see up sprays of grass to ashen, flying feathers,
but more to rushing bands of smoky clouds and asphalt char,
the path astride this field. My molten shadow drips off stones.
The tar now fused and cooled, I walk it back to turgid fires.
The wind roars like a terrible
conflagration, and the grey,
not white, smoke is winning.
Stone-piles at my feet see up
to the short spray of grasses,
hints of feathers on higher fliers,
and my shadow. But mostly,
to the rushing bands of smoky
clouds, straight up, and the char
of an asphalt path set down
astride the still, fiery field.
Blown quiet, I walk on
cold coals, most unhurried,
back, into no fire.
All this is to just to reiterate what I said last time, that the specter of a live audience and official publication is a healthy catalyst for fruitful revision. Since exploring the nature of the writing process with my poetry in my series “On Process: Verse Writing,” I have come to realize, too, that the particulars of the process matter less than going through it. But it should consist at least of a shift in types of attention to the work: writing with creative abandon, then reading with editorial skepticism, and, once this due diligence is done, being willing to put the editor away again if the piece needs another injection of creativity.
So, by way of advice, I would say don’t skip revision and be open to rewriting. You may not only learn new things but also greatly improve your work. The trick at that point is knowing when to stop and say, “It’s as good as it’s going to get,” because writing can be overworked, too.
Well, what do you think of the changes to “Inspirator”? Are these poetic feet on fire, or am I sifting through the ashes of ideas lost to change?
* The word “inspirator” can mean four different things: (a) a device or agent that serves as an injector of vapor, air or liquid, (b) something that enlivens or gives spirit to someone or something, (c) something that inspires in an artistic or conceptual sense, and (d) something or someone that takes in breath (creative license here). I mean it in all four senses at different points in the poem.