As many of you know, in addition to what is accumulating here based on the ten questions on publication, I already have huge repositories of wisdom on this blog from heads far wiser than mine on the Ten Questions on Poetry page. Each interview there is a fascinating read of itself, and I have also slowly (yes, slowly) been working on a cross-referenced index (check the left sidebar) with separate standing pages, each holding the collective wisdom of the contributing poets on just one of the original Ten Questions on poetry.
So far we have Online Workshops and the Role of the Poet, (Negative) Critique/Criticism and today I have added a new one: Poems: grape juice or wine? This was based on No. 3 of the original Ten Questions, which was:
Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. […] When Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. […] By this time, I would be grateful – and published poetry would be better – if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”
You’ll see that our respondents are all over the map on this question – some basically agreeing with Hall, some disagreeing, and most doing kinda sorta both.
I’m of more than one mind on this question myself. You definitely can push stuff out too soon — I have a couple of pieces online that I can’t bear to look at because they contain a line or word that I have changed since they were published.
In thinking about this and reading all the responses to Question 3 together, I realize that one dark primal fear I have about “too soon” is that “too soon” is just bad manners. Discourteous to the reader. Akin to putting out stuff with typos and grammatical errors.
Is it, isn’t it?
To come at the question another way, what does keeping a poem “at home” mean? Keeping it to yourself, or not going beyond the workshop? Where are the workshop boundaries? It’s possible to define “workshop” as both what you and your own inner critic do with a piece and what a more formal workshop trial leads you to do with the piece. But does workshopping end there? Obviously not, for those who continue to edit pieces after publication. For those, then, the process of publication becomes a part of workshopping. I must say I kind of like the notion of the world being one’s workshop…
And to finish up with the grape juice/wine metaphor we started out with. How much “lagering” (as Paul Stevens said in his answer to this question) or maturing does a poem need? It occurs to me that at the end of the day, all good poems probably do need a fairly good long steep/simmer/stew/percolation. But perhaps where we go wrong in discussing this question is in assuming that the stewing period only begins after the first draft is written, and continues through the 10th, 50th etc drafts. It may be more accurate to note that the requisite percolation period can begin long long before a single word is ever written. If a poem comes to the page following a long unseen internal stew, it very often dashes itself off and comes out right first time. The ones that get to draft no. 100 probably weren’t simmering around in your subconscious for long enough before you put pen to paper.
Anyhow, go read what they said.