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 the boys listen: it is rather an elusive quality in the teller himself. “Had but the Tale a Teller/All the Boys would come – .” What is that missing quality? Among the thirteen adjectives laid out for the choosing, some suggest why the audience might respond to the teller: he would be “thrilling,” “winning,” “pungent,” “bonnie”; other adjectives (more appropriate to a scout leader) include “friendly,” “mellow,” and “hearty”; yet others suggest the teller’s religious fervor, “ardent,” “breathless,” even “magic”; still others suggest qualities belonging to the teller’s rhetoric: had but the tale a “typic” teller, a “tropic” teller, a “spacious” teller. What is it, fundamentally, that will attract an audience to a tale? And a threatening tale at that: “Boys that believe – are very lonesome – /Other Boys – are lost – .”
Reviewing the possible qualities of a convincing preacher, Dickinson finds something disingenuous in a teller who takes pains to be “one of the boys” in his friendliness or his heartiness; and she doubts that religious fervor, no matter how ardent, will win over the youthful audience. There is one adjective I have not as yet mentioned: it is the one Dickinson wrote down twice among her alternatives, and the one she finally adopted. It has nothing to do with the personal qualities of the preacher, or his religious feelings, or his efforts to make friends with the boys, or his exciting melodrama, or the rhetorical gestures—typic, tropic, spacious—that he might employ.
The chosen adjective in Dickinson’s fair copy is the unexpected word “warbling.” Who “warbles” in a pulpit? Dickinson makes her point immediately by a telling comparison: “Orpheus’ Sermon captivated – /It did not condemn – .” But she is also remembering Milton’s characterization of Shakespeare in “L’Allegro”; when the Cheerful Man goes to the theater at night he hears “Sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child/Warble his native wood-notes wild.” Both Dickinson and Milton insist on manner, rather than matter: it is Shakespeare’s linguistic music that charms the audience. The nightingale warbles, Shakespeare warbles, Orpheus warbles. The clergyman must warble too. Whether he can is Dickinson’s sardonic question.
Dickinson’s pondering of adjective after adjective suggests the flood of intellectual or moral alternatives that are generated when the poet searches for truth. She is not assembling a group of synonyms: rather, each potential choice suggests a different angle from which to predict the success of a sermon. But lest we think from this example that a revision amounts merely to finding a better word, Dickinson offers (in the poem beginning “Shall I take thee, the Poet said”) an anecdote rebuking the poet’s initial misguided notion that it is merely a single word she is lacking. As she had in “The Bible is an antique Volume,” the poet repeatedly “searche[s] Philology,” looking at plausible candidates to fill the spot, wishing to “nominate” one to that office, but finding every one of the verbal “Candidates” imperfect. Vexed by frustration, the poet almost succumbs to the temptation to compromise her standard of truth and take what is available:
Shall I take thee, the Poet said
To the propounded word?
Be stationed with the Candidates
Till I have finer tried –
The Poet searched Philology
And was about to ring
For the suspended Candidate…
Indeed, why not settle for a word already propounded, standing by among the other “Candidates”? Then the poet realizes, abashed, that it is not a word that is missing but rather an unknown element of her original vision. To fill the spot, the poet must reclaim the whole vision, revisit it and explore it until she finds the neglected element and acknowledges it. Once that is done, the word she lacks appears all by itself:
There came unsummoned in –
That portion of the Vision
The Word applied to fill
Not unto nomination
The Cherubim reveal –
The cherubim—the next to highest order of angels—cannot be commanded to reveal the right word. The right word is not languishing among propounded “Candidates” waiting to be “nominated.” Because the vision proper inhabits the realm of the highest angels, it is only when the poet ascends to that realm and reenters her vision, admitting to herself that it is not a word she lacks, but an as yet unexplored territory of inspiration, that the cherubim act, and the right word arrives to complete the poem.
I have been speaking of revision as if the poet is alone in the task, but sometimes the poet reaches out to a stimulating collaborator. Dickinson’s sister-in-law Susan was for some time the poet’s first reader, and when Susan was dissatisfied with the second stanza of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” Dickinson furnished a glittering proliferation of new possibilities. (The first stanza, reprinted below, remains the same in all four versions except for Dickinson’s change of the Pauline word “sleep” to the more accurate “lie” in describing these dead who will never awaken.)
As the poem opens, the poet satirizes the credulity of her Christian forebears, who descended into their graves “sagely” believing in an afterlife in heaven. Inhabiting their alabaster vaults, the deluded dead think themselves “safe” from time’s daily dangers:
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –
Untouched by morning
And untouched by noon –
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection –
Rafter of satin,
And Roof of stone.
Against the dead unable to hear breezes, bees, and birds, Dickinson sets nature—“ignorant” in its laughing alliterating energy—to mock the complacent Christian “sagacity” that believed in a personal resurrection:
Light laughs the breeze
In her Castle above them –
Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,
Pipe the sweet Birds in ignorant cadence –
Ah, what sagacity perished here!
Replying to Susan’s note criticizing the second stanza, Dickinson writes back, “Perhaps this verse would please you better – Sue – ” She then offers the first of her brilliant variations, creating alternate settings for the pious Christian dead. If the first backdrop to their immobility was nature’s lightness and vigor, the second offers not the human-scaled morning and noon but an epic backdrop of vast cosmic motion and extended historical time, all taking place in an infinite silence that reduces human death to insignificance:
Grand go the Years – in the Crescent – above them –
Worlds scoop their Arcs –
And Firmaments – row –
Diadems – drop – and Doges – surrender –
Soundless as dots – on a Disc of snow –
Queens and doges, no matter how regal, disappear soundlessly, invisibly, unremarked.
When Susan was dissatisfied with this second stanza as well, Dickinson, asking “Is this frostier?” created a third version of the afterlife, this time rendering the dead as the biblical tribes of Exodus, now silent, blind, paralyzed, eclipsed, and fastened in tents that the cold has turned to marble. In this wintry desert where the last words of the dying have left only echoes, the dead are destined never to view the Promised Land:
Springs – shake the Sills –
But – the Echoes – stiffen –
Hoar – is the Window – and numb – the Door –
Tribes of Eclipse – in Tents of Marble –
Staples of Ages – have buckled – there –
Dickinson added, in her own fair copy, yet another version, one not submitted to Susan’s collaborative judgment. In this last variation of the afterlife, the backdrop is a thawing arctic zone. As the spring sun diffuses its warmth, northern frosts begin to move, unhooking themselves from their frozen bases, while deep-hidden polar icicles, sensing the warmth, crawl toward it like snakes emerging from their caverns. Dickinson subversively chills even the life-giving powers of the spring sun with its inevitable death-melting of both frosts and icicles. And the deep night of the sealed sarcophagus “refutes” the suns of every successive dawn. With the word “refutes,” Dickinson converts the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection into a proposition in theological logic, one that is refuted in every instance by the dark sentence of death:
Springs – shake the seals –
But the silence – stiffens –
Frosts unhook – in the Northern Zones –
Icicles – crawl from polar Caverns –
Midnight in Marble –
Refutes – the Suns –
The four versions of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” prove Dickinson’s imagination to be almost unnaturally fertile in reconceiving a state of affairs. Had there been yet another objection from Susan, the poet would have been goaded into yet another landscape for death. Dickinson’s alternative stanzas recreate and recreate a single concept—the horrible deadness of the dead, which grows ever more horrible as the versions proliferate.
Poets editing their poems must of course undertake the efforts required in the editing of prose, but the poet’s choices are governed by, and constrained by, an aesthetic principle—different for each poem—that is the source of poetic individuation and originality. The writer’s aesthetic decisions—to delete, to supplement, to shape, to obey or disobey a meter, to mimic the vicissitudes of the mind—are arrived at invisibly, as from the poet’s repertoire there arise promptings toward an inner contour and volume not yet entirely obvious even to the poet, but which must take visible shape and audible sound in words.
Every accomplished and moving poem has therefore a will of its own: one poem will want to grow from a lyric to a sequence, while another will want to shrink to a line, and, as the poet listens to those desires, possible revisions arise and are adopted, minimizing or maximizing themselves to arrive at the poem’s final shape. The most aggressive minimalism—in which a broad history is condensed into a single line—has its own successes, comic and tragic. The most moving single-line poem I know is W.S. Merwin’s “Elegy”: “Who would I show it to”. The six simple unpunctuated words unerringly create four extended moments of life: the continued past, when the poet always showed a new poem to his friend; a recent past, when the friend died; a limitless present, lamenting that death; and a hypothetical aborted future, in which the poet would want to write a new poem but would be stopped by grief at the absence of his best reader.
Other substantial moves toward the minimal—as when an author rejects a whole group of stanzas—occur when the poet realizes that he or she has been writing on autopilot. Inspiration, says Gerard Manley Hopkins, produces the highest, Olympian form of poetic language, but there is, he writes, a second and lesser kind:
The second kind I call Parnassian. It can only be spoken by poets, but is not in the highest sense poetry. It does not require the mood of mind in which the poetry of inspiration is written. It is spoken on and from the level of a poet’s mind, not, as in the other case [of Olympian poetry], when the inspiration which is the gift of genius, raises him above himself.4
Dickinson, whose aesthetic law was one of inspired minimalism, rarely descended to an easy Parnassian flow.
While deletion—on moral or aesthetic grounds—is a self-amputation, addition, in a poem, is the growing of an ampler self, with a further dimension of feeling. Why, we ask, would a poet still think—after writing an inspired poem and making a perfect fair copy of it—that something is missing? Milton’s “Lycidas,” the greatest elegy in English, includes, like other elegies, the usual social forms of funeral rites: a group of mourners, a dirge, a eulogy of the dead, a rebellion against fate, and a hope of continued life for the lost friend. In his finished fair copy, Milton has already afforded several lines to the conventional gesture of strewing flowers on a coffin or grave, an act here rendered impossible because Lycidas’s death by drowning has deprived the mourners of a body to bury. The grieving poet, imagining for a moment that an actual hearse is before him, calls on the pastoral muse to bring and strew a tribute of flowers, bidding the landscape itself cooperate in the gesture:
Return, Sicilian Muse
And call the vales and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flowerets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enameled eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honeyed showers,
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
As he rereads his fair copy, Milton finds the lengthy flower-strewing gesture incomplete. Although he has given the psychological motive for the imagined (because factually impossible) strewing—“to interpose a little ease” in the pain of our shaken thoughts—and although he has mentioned various shapes and colors of flowers, he feels there is still something lacking. On a separate sheet of paper, he writes ten more lines on flowers, and cues them into the fair copy with an arrow at the point of insertion, after the line “And purple all the ground with vernal flowers”:
Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freaked with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk rose and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears:
Bid amaranthus all his beauties shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.
When we try to understand why Milton, already well supplied with flowers in his fair copy, felt compelled to add still more, we perceive, as he did, that his original flower passage offers only generalized blossoms—“flowerets of a thousand hues” and “vernal flowers”—and so he feels he must add individual species of flowers. But the new flower names convey more than mere specification: for the most part, each individual name is inseparable from pathos. As grief takes innocent form in tender flowers, an almost intolerable poetic conflict between tragedy and pathos takes place.
So far, the poem had been dominated by Milton’s tragic words on the sea’s destruction of Lycidas’s corpse (“wheree’er thy bones are hurled”) and by his bitter words on the spiritual corruption of the preaching bishops, those “blind mouths” who starve their flocks and leave them prey to “the grim wolf with privy paw.” This harsh orchestration is rescued from its own immersion in despair by the powerful mollifying notes of the spring flowers.
When Milton adds a cascade of lavishly and intimately named flowers, he rights the aesthetic balance of his poem.5 Tempering tragedy by the pathos of tribute, he repairs the anguishing sight of Lycidas’s unsunk corpse “welter[ing] to the parching wind.” The flowers satisfy the moral obligation of accuracy, establishing even in a tragic moment a sane, not distorted, view of both nature and society. The revision that spills out more and more beautiful flowers on the page is moral, aesthetic, decorative, emotional, and intellectual, doing justice not only to the poet’s immediate feelings but also to the larger frame of the world.
Not all revisions are so grand or so intense as Milton’s, and few depart, as his did in “Lycidas,” from an already completed fair copy. On the contrary. A poet’s very first inchoate revisions, attempting to encourage an embryonic notion into verse, are often both revelatory and entertaining. Yeats quotes Aubrey Beardsley as saying of composition, “I make a blot & shove it about till something comes.”6 As a contemporary example of the “blot” and “shoving about” I think of two of Seamus Heaney’s earliest worksheets for the poem eventually called “Alphabets,” written for Harvard’s 1984 Phi Beta Kappa commencement ceremony.
The theme of Heaney’s poem is literacy itself. In elementary school the child first learns to write single letters, then to join them into English words. Later, in secondary school, he progresses from English to Latin to Irish, encountering in Latin an unfamiliar imperial culture and in Irish script a new formation of letter shapes. In manhood, as he visits foreign countries, he realizes that literacy finally aspires to a global culture that would approximate the stunning view of earth from space:
From his small window
The astronaut sees all that he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum—…
However, Heaney does not end “Alphabets” with the adult global view but rather—writing now in the first person—he closes on the wonder in his own pre-literate recognition that a formerly unintelligible group of letters can represent his own family name. The astronaut’s view is—as Heaney travels back in time to childhood—
…like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable and writing our name there
With his trowel point, letter by strange letter.
When we look at Heaney’s editing of his drafts for “Alphabets,” it appears that the poem’s closing word—“letter”—is hovering in the poet’s mind as he begins. But which letters? he asks himself: Greek? English? Irish? Here, the Beardsley “blot” that requires shoving about is the alphabet itself. Because it is the Phi Beta Kappa Society that is sponsoring the poem, Heaney’s first worksheet thinks to illustrate the Greek letters by imaginative simile:
Kappa like the
Phi like the
I came among the alphabets.
Another initial attempt, drawn from primary school, tries further visual similes and at the end tacks on a sound effect:
On the wall there are charts with a big A
Like two rafters and a cross-beam in a roof.
This is rewritten to introduce an incongruous sound effect noticed by the child:
Two rafters and a cross-tie on his slate
Make the capital some call ah, some ay.
The notion of visual simile is then itself shoved about until it loses energy and dwindles into overspecificity:
Small d is a hoop left of the upright
And small b
A small apple
As the poet thinks, he doodles on the page: should the shapes he uses be those of lower-case letters or upper-case ones? The next worksheet shows both. The unsuccessful “hoops” of “d” and “b” combine on the page in joint shapes, go upside down, and pile up into an eight, which, with a tail, becomes a cat. Only after more than forty worksheets does the poem become fully formed.
I take as my final example of poetic self-editing Keats’s initially baffling excision, in his ode “To Autumn,” of an apparently impeccable line. What could have been his reason for deleting a warm and thematically relevant moment, as perfect in its details as any other in the poem? In the opening morning stanza of “To Autumn,” Keats had shown the first harvest, that of nectar, gathered by the deceived bees who “think warm days will never cease.” Now, in the second stanza, it is noon, and the goddess Autumn drowses, suspending her self-harvest in wheat and apples—the wheat her winnowed hair, the crushed apples her blood—as she sacrifices herself to produce the bread and sober “wine” of the earthly paradise.
Unlike inaccessible divinities, Autumn dwells among us, visible to any passerby in the various places and postures of her self-harvesting. In the noon stanza, we first see the goddess sitting on a granary floor, where soon the flail will thresh the grain from the chaff. Addressing the goddess Autumn, the poet says:
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks
abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of
poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and
all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across
Or by a cyder-press, with
Thou watchest the last
oozings hours by hours.
Keats’s first stanza has told us that the maternal Autumn, through her “conspiring” with the paternal sun, has produced the fruits of the earth. It would seem quite in order for the noon scene in the granary to include the paternal sun, and Keats, seeing that plausibility, after writing “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,” inserts the line I puzzled over:
While bright the sun slants through the husky barn…
And then he rejected it, cutting as well a reference to the “warm slumbers” of the goddess, deleting not only the sun’s brightness but also its warmth. Although in the morning “the maturing sun” is veiled in mists, his fostering warmth is implicit in the growth of fruit, and at evening his “rosy” color, suffusing the clouds, warms the stubble plains (“Somehow a stubble plain looks warm,” Keats wrote two days later.7 Why is the sun not allowed, at noon, to illuminate the motes of floating chaff and to warm the slumbering goddess?
It is, I believe, the liquid cadence of “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind” that prevents the retention of the robust and energetic line, “While bright the sun slants through the husky barn.” The rhythm of that line is no dying fall, but rather a series of beats matching the strikes of the flail, entirely out of tune with the rest of the stanza in which the reposing reaper does not reap, the brook-crossing gleaner does not glean, and the presser of apples does not press, but merely watches. All is aftermath, drowsy and static; the flail cannot be allowed its active work, and so Keats sacrifices his beautiful line.
It is in such self-editings that we come closest to the imagination of the poet in the intense activity of conception. We see the poet’s mind advance from its first glimpses of a possible work of art to the delight in finding the right general plan; but then there must also be the querying of individual words, images, and rhythms, and then the adjusting of each plane to an alignment with the others. In the miraculous transformation of a blank sheet of paper into echoing lines, we see an exacting self-scrutiny and self-correction that must be more imaginative, more stringent, and more precise than any act we perform in editing our prose.
From Keats’s “To My Brothers”: “And while for rhymes I search around the poles.” ↩
“Chekhov on Sakhalin,” in Station Island (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985), p. 19. ↩
Writing about his own poem “Le Cimetière Marin,” Paul Valéry declared: “In the eyes of those who anxiously seek perfection, a work is never truly completed—a word that for them has no meaning—but abandoned.” ↩
From Gerard Manley Hopkins’s letter to Alexander William Mowbray Baillie, September 10, 1864. ↩
Two variations on the new lines, showing how he arrived at them, are reproduced in The Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. III: The Shorter Poems (Pub. TK, 2012). ↩
Letter to Dorothy Wellesley, August 13, 1936. ↩
Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, September 21, 1819. ↩