Poems: grape juice or wine?

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:

Question 3
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.

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

10 thoughts on “Poems: grape juice or wine?”

  1. One of the things this suggests is a change in the way we view ourselves and the development of human personality and character. Implicit in the view of Horace and Pope is that they would remain essentially the same people, just more skillful as craftsmen. They perceive no incongruity in a poet picking up his piece 10 years on and revising it, because the poet will be the same person, just a decade better at what he does.

    We may not feel the same. We are likely to be uncomfortable revising a 5 year-old poem because we think we’ve moved on, grown, changed–maybe even adopted an entirely new aesthetic or technique. Pope didn’t think he was going to change; he was just going to become more Pope-ish as he matured. We’re not so certain there’ll be no discontinuities.


  2. Waiting is such a good idea, if you are thirty and have an entire lifetime to revise and publish. If, however, you first published a poem in your fifties and have reached sixty without a published book, this wait, wait, wait falls harshly on the ears. I’d like to have a book signing in a book store not a nursing home! :-)

  3. Hrm. I may have answered on the wrong page, so I’ll tack my answer on here, too.

    In looking over my answer, I’m even more convinced I was right, at least for me.

    I found a poem a few days ago that I don’t remember writing. But I liked the poem. It has a tiny error in it that I’d like to fix. The problem with doing so? I don’t write poems like that poem now. If I try to revise that poem, I turn it into the poem I write now, not the poem I wrote then. I’m not a better writer than I was then, just a very different one. And I don’t want to Wordsworth my entire output, dammit.

  4. So, if I understand what Richard asserts, Pope thought that because his Pope-ishness never changed, an ideal, attainable form of each Pope poem existed, which it took a measurable amount of time and effort to attain.

    Julie, meanwhile, thinks that each Julie poem has only a limited opportunity to reach an ideal form, because Julie herself is on a sliding existential scale and Julie Version 5.2 can’t (with the best will in the world) edit a Julie Version 4.0 poem without transforming it into a Julie 5.2 poem. And Julie Version 4.0 doesn’t remain Julie 4.0 long enough to give 4.0 poems the kind of opportunity to reach perfection Pope poem had.

    Much more clatter and rumble from time’s winged chariot (I hear you, Helen!) in the latter experience than the former, maybe.

    One scary experience I recently had was with a poem I have been writing for the past ten years. Not sure what lunatic impulse led me to submit it for publication, because it was accepted! This is a poem that has Nic 3.0, Nic 4.0, Nic 5.0, Nic 6.0, etc, versions.

    I feel bereft, I tell you. Bereft.

    And wondering: Are we the subject of our poems or are they the subject of us?

    Never mind.

  5. Yeah, that’s pretty must the gist of it, for me. Of course, I don’t believe in a perfect poem anyway, so I’m not too fussed about those chariot marks on my backside.

  6. That’s not quite how I’d have put it, I guess. I think we feel a sense of trepidation approaching our old poems with a red pencil, not because we’re less skillful, but because we’re not sure we’re quite the same persons we were then, and we sense that there’s something not quite right about John Doe 1 correcting John Doe 2’s poems–he’s a different guy coming from a different place.

    I’m not sure Pope and Horace would have felt that way. They would not have thought themselves debarred because they wouldn’t have felt themselves essentially changed; I don’t think–this is speculation, you understand–they understood personality in quite the same way we do. They’d have said something like Frost, “They would not find me changed from him they knew/ Only more sure of all I thought was true.” Do you feel that way about your earlier selves? I’m not sure I do.


  7. Hi Nic.

    “When Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism seventeen hundred years after Horace”

    “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 seventeen hundred years time will people be arguing over the various versions of your poem? (Who knows? Maybe )

    I’m not a Horace scholar, but my take on his advice to “ put your manuscript away till the ninth year” is that after that time, if a poet deems his/her poem worthy of being published in the time in which it (the poem) is contemporary then it should also be worthy of publication as part of the going tradition of poetry –i.e
    future generations will enjoy and learn from it.
    “… recall the tradition!” –Horace.


    Such is your judgement and sense. Yet if you do ever
    Scribble, let it enter Tarpa the critic’s ears,
    Your father’s and my own, then put your manuscript
    Away till the ninth year: you can always destroy
    What you haven’t published: once out there’s no recall.
    AP:366-407 No mediocrity: recall the tradition!

    Grant poets the power and right to kill
    Themselves: who saves one, against his will, murders him.
    It’s not his first time, nor, if he’s rescued will he
    Become human now, and stop craving fame in death.
    It’s not too clear why he keeps on making verses.
    Has he desecrated ancestral ashes, disturbed
    A sad spot struck by lightning, sacrilegiously? Yes,
    He’s mad: like a bear, that’s broken the bars of its cage
    The pest puts all to flight, learned or not, with reciting:
    Whom he takes tight hold of, he grips, and reads to death,
    A leech that never looses the skin, till gorged with blood.
    AP:408-437 Nature plus training: but see through flattery

    All real art makes us reconsider tradition—not as a fixed canonical body that exists behind us or bears us up, but as something we move toward. We find it reading back through those very works that were ahead of their own time—in the poems of Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Williams or Jack Spicer, for instance. If this model of discovery teaches us anything, it’s that tradition is, in fact, always just ahead of us. Something we are always approaching. . .
    Interview with Peter Gizzi by Robert N. Casper from jubilat, Issue 14

  8. Thanks, Julie, Richard, David for all these headache-inducing and diverging paths of thought. Differing conceptions of time seem to be at the bottom of much, when I think about it. Requiring yet more thought. Where does it end?

    And many thanks for the actual Horace, David.

    Has he desecrated ancestral ashes, disturbed
    A sad spot struck by lightning, sacrilegiously?

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