How do poets edit their own work, when they are searching (as Keats wrote) “around the poles” to make the poem a work of art?1 W.B. Yeats, replying to friends who deplored his late revisions of early verse, said the definitive word on what is entailed in poetic second thoughts:
The friends that have it I do wrong
When ever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.
(“Introduction” to Complete Poems, 1908)
Or, as John Berryman put it more surgically,
I am obliged to perform in complete darkness
operations of great delicacy
on my self.
(“Dream Song 67”)
The first injunction of poetic self-editing is a moral one: to do open-heart surgery in the darkness means to restore the uprightness of the self. “How hard,” said Yeats, “is that purification from insincerity, vanity, malignity, arrogance, which is the discovery of style.” One daunting aspect of poetic self-editing is the number of planes that must be under revision simultaneously: the elementary ones of syllable, rhyme, rhythm, and stanza form; the basic ones of plot and the conduct of the plot; the navigational ones of space and time; and the emotional ones of veracity and tone (generating, in Seamus Heaney’s phrasing, a work that is “not tract, not thesis”2).
Revision can be minimal: in the simplest case it may add (or delete) a single word (as we will see in an example from Emily Dickinson). And it can be maximal: in the most complex case, a revision may create and add a substantial new portion to an already finished poem, as in my example from Milton. In the case of poetry, the work of revision is theoretically endless. As Valéry put it, poems are not finished, but abandoned.3
Revising even a single word is a complex act: finding the mot juste is never “simple.” Emily Dickinson does her most elaborate piece of single-word revision when she considers, in a rough draft, thirteen possible adjectives for a single noun. Thinking of her nephew’s response to church sermons, she rebukes the preacher whose staid retelling of Bible stories bores his young audience. Why, she speculates in “The Bible is an antique Volume,” can’t a sermon offer versions more excitingly named and therefore more attractive to boys? Why shouldn’t descriptions like these enliven the sermon?
Eden – the ancient Homestead –
Satan – the Brigadier –
Judas – the Great Defaulter –
David – the Troubadour….
However, on rethinking the problem of attracting the young, Dickinson decides that it is not excitement of plot that would make…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.