Friday, January 11, 2013

Poems: Revision

     I own Robert Wallace's second edition (1987) of Writing Poems––a book on writing poetry that reflects loving use with marginal notes, highlighted passages, and sticky flags. One day I'll update this classic volume now in its eighth edition to my poetry shelves. One day.
     For today's Post, I've selected a small portion that Mr. Wallace wrote on revising (page 325) to share with you.
     The secret of writing is rewriting. As W. H. Auden notes, "Literary composition in the twentieth century A.D. is pretty much what it was in the twentieth century B.C.: nearly everything has still to be done by hand." Rewriting is exploring, trying out. The poet uses both ends of the pencil. Luckily, unlike the sculptor or the painter, the poet can go back to earlier versions if he or she makes a mistake. A typical way is to scratch out and add, scratch out and add, scribbling alternatives in the margin, until the sheet is embroidered with corrections––and then to recopy the best version that can be sorted out of it. Then the poet goes on scratching out and adding on that draft. There are 175 work-sheets for a poem by E. E. Cummings ("rosetree, rosetree"), and Donald Hall reports that "The Town of Hill" (page 348) went through fifty or sixty drafts; "three years of intensive work, with lots and lots of changes." The poem's deceptive simplicity is a result of labor, fusing Hall's boyhood memories of the town that was later abandoned and flooded to make a lake, with his present vision of the underwater town. Like simplicity, spontaneity and naturalness are usually the result of hard work. Easy writing tends to produce hard reading; hard writing, to produce easy reading.  
     Wallace's observation on revising rings true to my ears. It, like the rest of the book, is clearly written with lively presentations on the form, content, and process of poem writing. It provides excellent examples of classic and contemporary poems, and warm guidance to help writers improve their craft. 
     Robert Wallace was born in 1932 At the time of his death in 1999, he was working on a fifth edition of Writing Poems.

Front Cover
     To poets reading this Post, please check out the more recent edition by Michelle Boisseau. Also, read about the Robert Wallace Collection held by the Missouri State University Library
     Do you own any edition of this outstanding book?