THE OPPORTUNITY OF REVISION
I began to write when I was nine years old, and have gradually (and sometimes painfully), come to understand something of what writing poetry entails; so much so, that I welcome revision. (Sometimes I would rather revise a poem than write a new one!) When I was younger, I welcomed positive comments from readers, such as, "Wow! This is prefect. Don't change a thing." Now, the advice I crave is: "Maybe this line break, image, title, ending, opening, word choice, stanza break, theme idea could be revised, or placed elsewhere, or removed." Some poets find this commentary difficult to accept and feel that he or she worked hard! These are my feelings! But I think it's important to soak up people's comments and leave ego out of the process. After all, the writers in my revision workshops are not in it for humiliation, but are in it to suggest ways to improve the poetry presented. As poet Naomi Shihab Nye puts it, revision helps to "make [poetry] shine." Nye says that she "now see[s] revision as a new vision." She feels that "it means you don't have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!" Nye affirms the idea that it is difficult to write it right the first time, and that revision gives us a chance for a better poem; writing and rewriting most often lead to clarity.
"But I Am Walking!" was accepted into the 2009 Inglis House Poetry chapbook She Asks for Slippers While Pointing at the Salt earlier this year. In the meantime, I had revised the poem and sent editor Mike Northen the newer version. Below are the two versions; the one on the left is the initial poem sent; on the right is the final published version.
But I Am Walking!
In the dream, I stand under the lamp
I feel is sandpaper. I wonder why
incendiary Molotov cocktails to deliver
I place each foot on the jagged sidewalk
But I am walking! A paper so white
except for some unreadable words smeared
so I drop the paper onto the debris
But I Am Walking!
In the dream, I walk under the lamppost
I rub my eyes to clear them, and wonder why
Molotov cocktails that could deliver
finds stability on the jagged sidewalk.
A paper so white it hurts my eyes
I coax, I beg, then voilà! - the words
The revision time between these two poems was approximately three months; the major revisions I concentrated on were compression, word choice, imagery, lyrical sense, and rhyme. I received many useful revision suggestions for this poem; I also read the poem aloud to find its lyric and resonant detail. Sometimes, another writer would read it out loud to me. Poetry is meant to be spoken; the ear often hears what the eye cannot see.
"But I Am Walking!" concerns one of my frequent dreams of walking unaided with balance and poise in spite of multiple sclerosis. Even though I am wary of dream poems - too frequently they include generalities and clichés, emotional overload, ineffective hyperbole, and confusion - I liked where this poem was headed; many of my MS poems take a negative stance, and this one did not.
The revision of the first stanza concentrates on word choice and setting details. In a dream poem, grounding the reader with specificity is perhaps more necessary than in poems not concerning dreams. (I am a firm believer in the power given by specific details in all poems.) Workshop comments concerning the first stanza concentrated on its wordy nature and 'clunky' sound. Most felt that it did not read well because there were too many words describing something that can be described more simply, and with more originality. For example, I removed the unnecessary phrase "some foggy street" since I do not return to 'fog' or emphasize it. The abbreviation "Afghan" for "Afghanistan" is too clipped and informal. I used the word "camp" because it rhymed with "lamp"; I then made the line even more of a disaster by using the adjective "training" for camp. (Training for what?) The last line of the first version, "I rub my eyes to clear them but all / " is truncated. Enjambment is very useful in poetry, but this example is forced and stilted.
In the revised first stanza, the aspects of setting become clearer and they do not clutter the poem with unnecessary details. "Lamp" becomes "lamppost; the place is simply "a street" with no fog, and the buildings are now described as "fallen, crumpled." I don't leave it up to the reader to fill in the details about the buildings at a "training camp." When I use "as if in Afghanistan," two things are accomplished: the lyrical sense of the line is enhanced and a metaphorical setting is established. The rhymed first and third lines throughout the poem presented a difficulty for me; I rarely use rhyme because I am not adept at it and am fearful that rhyme will take precedence over meaning. But when "lamp" became "lamppost," the rhyme had to change. After fortunately rejecting words such as "most" and "boast," I settled on the word "just," because its off rhyme is more pleasing. Also, using enjambment after the word "just" makes the rhyme less obtrusive. I end the stanza with a new visual detail: "rubble of brick and stucco," which brings it to a definitive close.
Revisions in the second stanza are subtle, but necessary. The opening line reads, ". . . I feel is sandpaper. I wonder why." One reader asked of this first line, "What's this sandpaper doing here? It gives a negative aspect to the speaker." I realized that even though the speaker's setting appears destroyed, the speaker herself should not be, so I removed that image in the revised poem. In the second line, the wordiness of "had been in need of" is lessened to "had required." The rest of the stanza is almost the same. Now, the poem employs less words and still offers setting, movement, and the beginnings of a thematic puzzle - why is this disabled speaker able to walk in this "blasted" place? And, what is he or she going to do about it? The revisions in the third stanza are also few, but important. First, at the suggestion of one workshop reader, I removed the adjective "incendiary" for "Molotov cocktails." Since I compare the damage from this homemade device to the effects of MS, that weapon can speak for itself without the redundant adjective. Also, the "ruin" that the weapon delivers for "determined outings" is sharper with one less word. Then, instead of the speaker (the "I") doing the acting, "hips and knees" and "each foot" perform the actions, giving an immediacy and naturalness to the speaker's ability to walk. The third stanza ends with the enjambed line "and each foot" to move the reader faster to the fourth stanza, almost mimicking the action of walking.
In the revised fourth stanza, wordiness and pacing are improved. Instead of the telling phrase, "perfect balance," each foot now "finds stability on the jagged sidewalk." The revised line reads better with its odd rhythm and the inclusion of "stability" and "jagged" in the same line. With the removal of "What a bizarre universe," the approach is more direct:
I cannot decode the blasted buildings
By removing "decipher" and using the adjective "insane," the stanza more clearly paints the strange dream setting in which the speaker walks. Also, "but I am walking!" now becomes part of the last sentence in the stanza and not the beginning of the next stanza; this lessens the emotional 'shout' of the phrase, since it also serves as the title. Exclamation points can be a difficult punctuation to use - if too many are used where unnecessary, the poem can be sophomoric, if none is used where necessary, the poem can be dry and unemotional. I think the necessity of an exclamation point in the poem is clear: in spite of the "insane" Rorschach of a setting - the "fallen" and "crumpled" buildings, "rubble of baked brick and stucco," a "jagged sidewalk," and the speaker's legs needing "serious repair" - she walks effortlessly with "weightlessness" and "stability," and revels in this ability.
The last two stanzas of the revised poem incorporate the last three stanzas of the early version, achieving a tighter and more focused ending. As in many dream poems, (and many other poems) a new image is introduced suddenly and without explanation; the speaker holds "a paper so white it hurts [her] eyes." I removed the obvious and wordy question, "Where are / the words, the poems to lessen . . . confusion of the scene?" since one workshop reader sensibly asked, "Why does the poem need it?" The first version describes the unknown words as "unreadable" and "smeared / on the bottom of the page," which becomes "untidy letters disguised / as unreadable smears on the page" in the second version. Not only does this state the same thing, but also it is tighter and more specific. The need to find new rhymes for the last two stanzas resulted in "eyes" / "disguised" and "words" / "undeterred." Again, 'almost' rhyme, the use of enjambment, and using words with a varying number of syllables, enable me to avoid a singsong rhythm. The removal of "But they give no truths" became necessary; why have no connection between the paper and the speaker in the poem?
The revised last stanza gives a sharper image. The end of the first version states:
so I drop the paper onto the debris
The revised ending is:
I coax, I beg, then voilà! - the words
I removed "drop[ing] the paper onto the debris," because I wanted the reader to believe that the speaker still holds onto it, a more pleasing idea. I added "roam, roll, risk" as the three words that "emerge" on the white paper the speaker holds because, as poet Chris Bursk noted, "there needs to be some kind of connection between what is on the page and the speaker's walking. Without that, why include the paper at all?" So now, "roam, roll, risk" give a connection between the actions of the speaker and the 'advice' on the paper. Sound is important to me; alliteration here and elsewhere (also assonance and consonance) works to achieve that. I revise the adverb "briskly" to the adjective "brisk," improving the rhythm and meaning of the lines. Instead of reveling in "freedom," the speaker revels in the three words' "brisk advice." Also, "freedom" is better suggested in the poem with "revel" and "undeterred." On Chris Bursk's advice, I removed "passionately" since my love for alliteration is a bit overdone here. Both versions of the poem end with the speaker "undeterred" and able to "persevere" with her walking; something people with MS would absolutely celebrate.
Undoubtedly, the revisions with this poem will continue since I have already noticed words to be replaced and images to tighten or expand. Because specificity gives power and authority to a poem, my writing is guided by Anton Chekhov's words: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." I write because poetry is a process of discovery and truth finding; it allows us to discern what we wish to say through the act of writing itself. And, as writer Donald Murray believes, "the draft is always alive with possibility"; revision gives us an opportunity to write a more vigorous and resonant poem that successfully explores the viable nature of language.
Chekhov, Anton."Writers on Revision Quote Collection."