Too Many Facelifts
Recently, Art Durkee posted a very interesting essay, The Endless Edit. For this entry, I'd like to interpolate a bit. I don't have much to add, since Art covered the topic so well, but it's worth reinforcing, especially because I've noticed an obsession with revision across the Cosmoetica newsletter lately. To those revisors out there: tread with caution. Now, on to the article:
Say you write a poem, and are pretty pleased with it. Perhaps you tinker with it for a while, adding this, deleting that, till you're satisfied, or you leave it sit and go on to other things. Some time passes, maybe two or three months, and you come back to the poem; you still like it but see something else you think would be a small improvement and you make another change, and maybe a few weeks later another. And so it goes on for a year or more. Is there a time to stop this endless tinkering?
One important factor in deciding to stop tinkering with a poem is time—that is, your own movement through time. If you rediscover a poem you wrote years ago, you could revise it again. But over the years, you have changed: you are no longer the same person you were back then, and (hopefully) your writing has improved and changed, as well. This presents you with a choice between tinkering with the poem to bring it into your own present-time style; or to abandon the poem, leave it unchanged, and if the topic still intrigues you, write a new poem in your current voice or style.
Certainly it's a bad idea to revise a poem written in a different stage of one's writing without preserving it, completely erasing its previous form. The newer version would likely be superior; however, keeping a piece of one's own history is important for future inspiration and reference. In the city I live in, the downtown streets are largely brick. Newer roads are far smoother, but the old bricks are remnants of the past. Old poems are artifacts that contain the history of oneself; I cringe when I read some of my earlier work, but I can't imagine getting rid of them. Folks- preserve your museum.
If you are, by some chance, compelled to revise an earlier work (it may be unnecessary or undesirable to actually begin a new work), make every effort to preserve the original, even if the changes are minor. I've done this a few times; I've compared the old to the new and gained a better understanding of my shortcomings and progression by doing so (see here). Though we can never fully understand anyone's artistic process, ever our own, it's important for a person to take every opportunity to learn more about him or herself.
I've seen lots of decent second or third drafts of poems get killed by over-revision. All the life and breath goes out of the poems, even as they become so polished that in some circles they'd be lauded as examples of technical perfection and mastery.
Consider this ridiculous analogy: A landscape gardener is working on a topiary (a plant sculpture). He trims his shrub into the most marvelous ferret sculpture. However, he does not stop there; in an attempt to make his topiary an exact replica of a ferret, he begins attaching fur and painting the leaves.
LAEvaside: Being able to write passages like the above and publish them (despite their main purpose being to amuse the person writing them) is one of the main perks of blogging. [/laevaside]
Art is human; it contains a great deal of life and spontaneity. Too much tinkering with a piece can destroy the human aspect; a poem can become nothing more than an exercise in the mathematics of meter and rhyme.
You could, after you produce a version that satisfies you, go back to the previous attempts and pull out and use a remarkable turn of phrase, or line, or image, that seems to have some life in it, still, and incorporate it into the new poem. But don't overdo that, either; too much old stuff shoe-horned into the new poem will turn the poem into a contraption, which is yet one more way to kill the life and breath in it.
Superb advice. Pulling too much from one's previous works (and from other poets- mimicry is good, but it's important to inject oneself into a piece as well; a great [and amusing] example of overmimicry [in the comments]) is definitely a bad idea; great lines are not necessarily great when used in a different context, and attempting to plug in interesting lines and words into a poem as if it were a Mad Lib will disturb its music and meaning. Use caution when recycling writing.
Thanks go out to Art for this wonderful article (one among many); take care 'til next,