Flying Revision's Flag

Written by

Donald Hall
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An interview with Martin Lammon, originally published in Kestral in 1993.

Have you always revised your poems, from the beginning?

At twelve, when I wrote my first few poems, I don't believe I revised. When I was fourteen I got serious and wrote long poems in free verse called "Cain," "Blood," and "The Night Wanderer." Coming home from high school, I shut the door of my bedroom and sat at my desk, working at poems every afternoon for two hours. It astonishes me that, when I finished one of these poems, I turned back to the first page and immediately started rewriting it. It must've been temperament: no one praised revision to me; I don't recall reading about revision in biographies.

Do you recall any teachers or peers who first talked about the revision process?

No. I remember that some teachers were impressed that I revised, but I don't remember anyone urging me to revise. Late in my teens, I discovered Yeats, who of course revised assiduously, not only in drafts before publication but after publication, from printing to printing. When I was at college, my senior thesis took account of Yeats's revisions of "The Rose" over more than fifty years. I've wondered since: Do I revise so much because I think that I may therefore grow up to become William Butler Yeats?

Has your inclination to revise diminished or increased over the years?

As I grow older I revise more. It would be nice to think I revise more because my standards have raised themselves, but on the contrary I think it's a Wordsworthian diminishment of inspiration. I need to revise more. (Geoffrey Hill said that as you get older the inspiration comes at the end not at the beginning.) I don't mean to say that the quantity of revisions has proceeded evenly. In a depressed period from about 1968 to 1974 I wrote many many drafts but never got much done. Then the "Kicking the Leaves" breakthrough happened--and poems for a while came more quickly, with fewer drafts--I mean maybe twenty-five or thirty drafts over three to five months, as opposed to ninety or a hundred drafts over two years.

When a breakthrough comes, it always seems to me to happen in terms of the sound the poems make. Finding the long line of "Kicking the Leaves"--where I depended less on enjambment than I had done, more on caesuras within the line; where I depended less on vowels and assonance, more on consonants, a line that derived ultimately from Whitman and poets following Whitman like Lawrence, Roethke, Kinnell--I found the line itself an instrument of search or research, exposing for the first time areas of experience and feeling that had always been there but unavailable. Mind you, I married Jane about a year and a half before this breakthrough, and I do not mean to tell you that the private life does not affect the life of art. A year and a half later we moved to the farm. "Kicking the Leaves" looked forward to the New Hampshire move--and validated it--in advance.

Could you describe a typical revision process you follow? Or different procedures you follow for different kinds of poems? Has that process--or have these procedures--changed over the years?

When I was twenty-five a poem took six months or a year; typically, now, it takes two years to five. At one time under conditions of extreme inspiration I might write a first draft in which half the final lines were already there; then it took a year or two for the rest of the lines to right themselves. But most likely--and certainly now--the first draft will be terrible, and the second draft considerably different from the first. By the tenth or twelfth draft, things slow down.

With a longer poem, I tend to work through several separate fits of working. After a year or so, I get the poem to a point at which I don't know what to do next--but I know it isn't right. I abandon it in disgust for another six months or a year, then come back to it. When I do, the next draft changes many, many things--almost like the leap between the first and the second draft: I cut, I rearrange the order of stanzas, I find one line elaborating itself into two new stanzas, a direction I had missed earlier. . . Then the poem gradually settles down again. I may abandon the poem two or three times--and pick it up again--before I get the poem right. If I get it right.

In Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, you recall how Dylan Thomas claimed to work through a poem by writing two lines a day, finishing each line before moving on toward the completed poem. Have you ever worked that way?

I couldn't work Dylan's way if you paid me. I lack that concentration; I lack the ability to judge my work without hundreds of nights of sleeping on it. . .Dylan Thomas and Richard Wilbur (and a few others) know when they have a line right; I don't.

How do you decide when to stop revising? Can one revise too much?

Difficult question. Galway Kinnell believes that one can revise too much; I'm not certain that I can. Sometimes I worry that I may change a word simply because, having stared at it for five years, I'm bored with it. Sometimes I fear that I keep the poems at home because I don't want them to grow up and go away to school. Mostly I think I do the right thing by keeping them around, tinkering and tinkering.

To try drawing a reasonable template: At first the poem is volatile and changeable in the extreme; from time to time it slows down and stops. When it stops and will not move again, I show it to Jane and to other friends, and either they tell me to leave it alone, or they show me errors, which I change, or they make demands upon the poem that seem irrelevant to its identity. I finish the poem, with the help of my friends, publish it, it comes out in a magazine--and when the magazine arrives in the mail I tinker with the poem some more.

What do you want to accomplish when you revise? Obviously, you hope to improve the poem, to discover its ideal shape or expression. Would you describe specific goals?

I guess I can't describe goals other than the ones you mention. I'm not discovering "its ideal shape" exactly. I used to think that the statue was there inside the stone and I needed only carve down to it. Now I understand that new things come into the poem during revision, for instance things that have happened after I started the poem. Maybe I begin the poem mentioning "death" and then somebody in particular dies; the poem is apparently "about" something that happened after the poem began. Poems are ongoing improvisations toward goals we identify when we arrive at them.

Some writers hesitate to revise older work. When you revise an old poem, what is the relationship for you between the writer you were, say, twenty years ago, and the writer you are now?

I am the irritable elder correcting the young man's mistakes, glad the young man is not around to bite my head off. When I revise an old poem, I'm removing error; I'm substituting not new invention but something that will do: invisible mending.

Were you acting as the "irritable elder" or the young man biting off the even younger man's head when you revised your poem "Exile" for The Alligator Bride: New and Selected Poems (1969)? You have said before that you felt compelled to include this serious one hundred-line poem from your first book, but that you no longer liked it, so you reprinted as a sort of joke a six-line version comprising three parenthetical couplets from the original, longer version.

As I get older, maybe I get less irritable. In 1969, "Exile" felt intolerably public, intolerably a platform piece. But I liked those parenthetical couplets, ten syllable lines rhyming with six syllable lines; I decided merely to print these six lines as if they were the whole poem; it was only partly a joke. When I did Old and New Poems (1990), I felt less touchy about the earlier work. Still, I revised a good many lines of "Exile." It retains its original length of one hundred lines but they're not the same one hundred lines.

Is revision necessary for poetry? Should every poet revise?

Every poet should revise. Revision is not necessary for every poem. It's been necessary for every poem of mine--but I believe the testimony of some poets (and the evidence of manuscripts) that some great poems have arrived spontaneously, or almost spontaneously. Keats seems to have written great poems in a sitting. I find it hard to believe that Allen Ginsberg doesn't revise, as he sometimes claims. I don't want to believe it! . . . but it does happen, to other poets.

You may be the most prolific revisionist we have in this country; you've said that one poem has gone through over six hundred drafts over the years. Do you think other poets need to revise their work more than they do? Does the younger poet need to revise more than an older poet?

Six hundred is true enough but anomalous. Some poems go thirty or so, many go eighty, some go a hundred and twenty-five. Maybe Jack Gilbert revises more than I do, maybe Don Justice or De Snodgrass.

Most poets don't revise enough. Most poems that I see--in the mail and in print--have not been gone over thoroughly enough, and include dead metaphors and redundancies and other errors that ought to expose themselves to the inquiring or depressive intellect. I've said it before: You should stare at a poem long enough so that you have one hundred reasons for using every comma, one hundred reasons for every linebreak, one hundred reasons for every and and or. Reasons include rhythm, the emphasis that rhythm bestows, consonants and vowels, and the mouth-joy or dance-movement that enforces a line or activates the metaphorical workings of the brain. Reasons can be visual, how the poem looks on the page; reasons can be semantic or formal or the two together. The point is: Try to be every bit as conscious as you can possibly be. And all the time you have to know: As conscious as you are, you cannot know everything. If you are lucky, something good may happen in your poem of which you are not aware.

For a while in the sixties, it was common to claim "first thought, best thought"--which seems to me misleading; no: It seems untrue. Spontaneity is celebrated only by the nervous intellect, by the intellect afraid of sterility. Some people revise and don't admit it; conversely, others (like me? possibly!) revise less than they claim. All of us distort our stories of process according to our temperaments.

Oh, one celebrated American poet of our moment has written an essay on revision in which it is revealed that the poet revised some poems as many as five or six times. I get poems in the Monday mail that are dated the previous Friday. Never, never, never show a poem to anybody until you have worked on it in solitude for at least six months.

How can you make yourself revise if you don't want to, if your temperament works against your inclinations to revise? Should the poet force himself to revise?

Sure. If the poet wants to be a poet, the poet must force the poet to revise. If the poet doesn't wish to revise, let the poet abandon poetry and take up stamp-collecting or real estate.

In "Writing as Re-vision," Adrienne Rich suggests that revision has a lot to do with the writer's cultural, political, and aesthetic relationship to her subject--how that subject fits into the context of the writer's life. Is "re-vision" for you influenced by social or political issues as well as technical issues?

I'm seldom aware of social or political issues. When I am, I worry about self-censorship. Mostly, I'm just aware of the faults of the old word--or mark of punctuation--as inhibiting vision, preventing clarity, or evading difficult emotional truth.

In the early sixties, Robert Bly described you as a poet who examined, challenged, and celebrated the "middle class." Did you agree with that assessment? The way you talk about revision sounds a little like the "work ethic" traditionally associated with middle-class values.

I hate the phrase "work ethic." First, it's traditionally used by Republicans in order to get workers to produce more without extra pay. Second, it sounds as if the only reason to work were duty. I work because I love to work, because I love what I do. Mind you, it's ethical to write better poems rather than worse ones, so if revision promotes excellence, revision is ethical.

Indeed I come directly out of the middle of the middle class and I represent it as much as I criticize it. Bly was a farmer's son--and the agricultural society is considerably different from the suburban middle class I derive from. Virtually all American poets derive from the middle class. Lots claim that they are working class but this bragging often collapses upon examination.

What has revision meant to you over the years? What in particular have you learned about your work? Yourself?

Everything. I love messing about in the mud of language. By this messing about, I learn that my acknowledged motive or feeling was not exactly what I thought it was; revising, I see it myself more clearly. By seeing into myself--seeing through myself--probably I see into other people. If I don't see for other people, then my revising is all in vain.

Whom do you see for? Does revision include any responsibility on your part to the integrity of the person upon whom the poem is based, or only to the integrity of the poem itself?

Only to the integrity of the poem itself, but that integrity serves others. I don't care about the subject of the poem--if there is a human subject--but about the object of the poem, and the object of a poem is its readership. "The poem itself" is all the possibilities of people reading it. This possibility controls revision. The poem must talk to somebody who is entirely not myself; this notion underlies much revision, as one moves from the only private into the possibly public. I get this notion from reading poems. After all, I am "the readership" of all the poems ever written by other people. The poems of people long dead continue speaking to me. We talk to each other through poetry. I listen to John Dryden and Robert Browning every day.

Many writers hesitate to show work-in-progress to others, but as you mentioned earlier, you have solicited many readers--both peers and younger writers--for responses to your work. What role do these readers have in your revision process? The readership that represents the "object of a poem"? Or are these readers outside that objective? Does meaningful revision depend upon considering what others might see that the individual poet might miss?

Yes, the real reader may replace and correct the poet's theoretical other. Writers who won't show their work to others are avoiding criticism. It's a terrible mistake; tempting, but a terrible mistake. As you get older, it becomes even more necessary to seek out tough readers, because some people will lie to you--not knowing that they are lying, but lying nonetheless. Until recently I have felt that the old boys I grew up with were the best; but people get set in their ways. . .Some younger friends give me help, hurling my own standards back in my face--or applying standards I haven't even thought of.

First, I need to work on the poem by myself for a long, long time with no other consciousness intruding upon it, no other voice speaking when I look at the poem. After a year or so, when the poem slows down considerably, when I can see nothing more to do about it--but I suspect that there may be things wrong with it--I show it first to Jane, then to others by mail. Most poetic work happens in the original solitude, as you imagine the other, but finally you need the others who are really there: people who read well, people who read skeptically, people who read with imagination and intelligence.

Does the poet have a greater responsibility to revise than the novelist, dramatist, or short story writer? Or is poetry simply more conveniently revised?

You mentioned to me before that Robert Bly speaks of a hierarchy of language, with poetic expression at the top of the hierarchy. Poetic expression requires the greatest attention to words in the reading, and therefore the greatest attention in the writing. Attention in the writing largely happens by revision. First by concentration, then by revision. Maybe I am poor at concentrating and therefore need to multiply the occasions of concentration.

When I write fiction or essays I revise a good bit. Some essays and children's books have gone twenty-five drafts and thirty. But I've been able to write and publish some prose in a mere four drafts, When I hit immediately upon a characteristic tone and rhythm and syntax, then I can tidy up in four drafts. It's never so quick in poetry.

Shelley remarked that the poem one writes will never succeed as well as the poem inside one's head. Is revision a way of starting to draw as closely as possible to the poem inside your head?

Shelley was a philosopher who thought he was a poet. There is no poem inside the head. There is the longing toward a poem, the dark leaning, the inarticulate impetus, the dim luminosity. . . You direct a poem in response to the urgency, to answer the urgency, but not to copy an ur-poem that exists in your head. The poem is its own words and not some other thing.

Is revision more of a rational or emotional act? Equal parts both? Could you discuss?

In my own case, I need to apply the intelligence--a quality that I must summon with diligence. Therefore I tend to emphasize the rational, but revision's by no means merely rational. A phrase feels wrong, so I cross it out. Other words offer themselves as possible substitutes, as words that might feel right. When I use feel in these sentences, I think of how a glove or a shoe feels right--but feeling is the word I use. The phrase revised in the poem is more accurate to feeling; the first phrase was approximate; the second--or the twenty-seventh--is more difficult, more harsh, and more accurate.

In a recent essay in the American Poetry Review, Alan Shapiro has suggested that creative writing students should "practice imitation" (in the classical sense: that is, the poet contributes original insight to the imitation) of the old forms addressed by the old masters (for example, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Keats). How does revision change for you when you're working on a poem with formal boundaries? In free verse?

If I did what Shapiro suggests, I did it inadvertently, inadvertent imitation out of love. Lately I have been consciously imitating Horace and Virgil--a long way from the Latin class, where I was never competent. We can learn by imitating provided our ego-strength is sufficient, so that we remain ourselves. New wine in old bottles makes for explosions, and not just destructive ones.

Revision is no different, metrical poetry or free verse. In either case I must find form. Form is not defined by correctly adjacent louder and softer sounds. Meter is mechanics before it is music--though neo-formalists seem seldom to master these mechanics--but it becomes music as much as free verse does. Yeats's notion--that a poem makes a sound when it is finished like the click of the lid of a perfectly made box--applies to free verse as much as to metrical verse.

Do you ever revise a metrical poem into free verse? A free verse poem into something more formally structured?

Yes, I have moved back and forth in my drafts among iambic, syllabic, and the uncountable structures of free verse. Rodin advised young sculptors, when something was not going well, not merely to keep picking at it--the clay, the plaster--but to "drop it on the floor and see what it looks like then." Putting a free verse poem into syllabic couplets; revising from a pentameter stanza into syllabic lines of alternating nines and tens--such alterations drop the poem on the floor, to see what it looks like then.

There's a lot of talk lately about what can and cannot be taught about how to write. Can revision be taught? What can and cannot be taught about how to revise?

Revision can be demanded if it cannot be taught. What must be taught is the ability to see one's errors--possibly beginning with the notion that one can err, and that spontaneity is no virtue. Spontaneity tells lies that deliberate, careful thought can alter into truth. When I was a teacher, I doubtless let my students know they would please me more by revising an old poem than by writing a new one. Revision is a flag I've waved my whole life.