David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Revising Poetry Just Got Easier


Revision, as classically understood, generally relates to the poet’s understanding while composing a poem, via kneading language, via discovering insight. More and more though I find that sort of revision is only part of the problem, if it is a problem.

Yes, a poet revises, and tinkers, and starts over. But: Lately I’ve been thinking about revision in terms of the audience more than the poet, in terms of readers and the public-other far more than, speaking for myself, the relationship between me and what I am writing.

I don’t mean to reject revision in terms of revising to clarify and make clearer — as necessary as that intention is. I mean, rethinking of revision as something you want the reader to have, to experience, to live with. I mean, leading a reader to re-see the world, to experience a re-vision of their living life. For the reader to have the re-vision more so than the writer.

Not just, or not merely, or not only how the reader sees your poem, but, more, better, the goal…to think of revision as the reader’s experience outside the poem, and in the world. To think of a reader’s new way of living in the world as becoming the best consequence of revision.

So here goes: One problem with tinkering, say, as a form of revision, and the same goes for starting over from scratch, is that you likely end up spending a lot of time getting to the same place in your poem. That is, you arrive at the same problem you couldn’t solve earlier. You think that if you tinker with the thing or restart it, your choices will be better in the new draft, that your decisions will improve the poem. Your faith is in you. Your faith is that you’ll write yourself a better draft, or at least a less screwed up one, a less compromised one.

This may certainly occur sometimes. But I also think the rationale is intrinsically flawed. Writing is not necessarily a sequence of decision-making. If writing were a sequence of decision-making, then why don’t we human beings as a species make better decisions generally. Methinks we don’t. I think it’s generous for me to say that we’re pretty inconsistent at decision-making. We’re galactic in our inconsistencies, is what I mean.

Much of my thinking on this subject comes from the artist Phil Sylvester, who says, “for us to make consistently great decisions [in revision, say], we would need to already understand our subject. If we already understand it, there would be little reason” to write about it.

Meantime, when a poet revises with only his or her relationship to the material in the forefront (and not the reader’s capacity to re-see and re-live in the world), then you sometimes fail to recognize that what you are doing — in that moment, when you’re writing, when you’re crossing this out or adding that phrase in — is working with only a fragment of the thing you’re making. Your understanding of the poem is fragmentary; I mean, it’s a flash of what you are able to see at that time and at that moment that you are writing and rewriting. Compare the effort to trying to draw a map of a house while you’re in the dark and every so often all the lights flash on, then shut again.

For instance, what one day appears as a mistake, an accident, a fleeting swish of unmeaning in your new poem, or some under-awareness of meaning are (Phil again) surely “accurate reflections” of what you are processing as you write at that moment. So think of a draft as a clear, momentary sighting. And not as: a fixed portrait. Think of a draft as: a temporary awareness. And not as: a sequential development of decision-making.

It’s the process of seeing and the process of revising for the reader’s re-vision of the world that enables a poet to come to fresh understanding. If you could see what you understand about a poem — globally, from start to finish — you would write the finished poem first, would you not? As if you could write the future.

Better, I think, to be here now in the moment of what you’re writing and commit yourself to seeing afresh the way a reader sees afresh. Not to finish but to give experience over to the reader. To make a poem that a reader can live with as a new vision of the world he or she inhabits.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →