Sunday, March 29, 2009
Another one of the great divides that seems to come between poets and fiction writers is the issue of revision, which sometimes amounts to a dirty secret for poets. As my fiction professor used to say, everything held up Dylan Thomas as the spontaneous child of Pan, out of whom poetry just flowed. Yet when he died, they found over 200 drafts of “Fern Hill.” Still, it's rare to have a poet's editor or literary executor slice a page or a stanza out of an unpublished long poem (of which--let's face it--there must be many) and publishes it as a stand-alone piece, while Ralph Ellison and Ernest Hemingway have suffered the analogous effect. Similarly, no poet generates the same amount of controversy over whether or not their editor was largely responsible for their distinctive style (ala Raymond Carver’s minimalist “dirty realism”, or for the shape--or the manageability generated by 60,000 or 250,000 less words--of their novels (ala Thomas Wolfe). When I was editing Indiana Review, we would once in a great while ask for revisions of submitted poems (if the edits were distinct and severable, such as transposing or cutting stanzas or sentences), but almost never asking for newly generated content to fix old content. Generally, I’m in the habit of revising 50% to 85% of any given poem (aside from abandoned first drafts, of course), though this practice has often been met with bewilderment and astonishment from other poets, as if I had confessed to using a Ouija Board to guide my revisions. I’ve been asked twice for revisions of submitted poems (both times to the greater good of the poem), but I wonder how many poets get asked for revision in general, or if there are any great war stories out there. Anyone have any thoughts?