Poems: grape juice or wine?

Related Whale blog post.

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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.”

1. ROB
He’s got a point. Not in all cases. Some poems emerge more or less complete. But yes, poems I work on over a period of time usually become better as a result. I was reading earlier today on Ros Barber’s Shallowlands blog that she’s just put a poem through its 93rd draft and, I must admit, when I read her finished poems, I can tell how much thought has been put into them.

I agree with him. Indeed, I tend to side with Pope; five years would be better. Poems are like plants; if they’re published too soon, they’re too young and green. They should be buried and watered for long enough for them to mature.

I couldn’t disagree more. Imagine you are having a telephone conversation and you say, “How are you?” And then the person you’re trying to talk to says, “I’ll call you back in a week when I have the perfect answer for that.”

Writing a poem is like entering into a giant conversation. There’s more benefit in getting involved than in making sure every T is crossed. Just saying it out loud, just putting the poem out there, doesn’t mean the poem has to be finished. It can still be changed. Or, you may find that the poem as it is says just the right thing at the right time, asks just the right question to draw the whole room together. If you know it’s wrong, fix it first. But if you think it’s close, say it out loud and listen to the echoes.

It’s my guess Horace waited 10 years to get his poems published, that Pope waited five years, and that Mr. Hall waits at least 18 months. In general, it is good to give the poem time. But it’s up to the poet and the poem. I’m sure everyone has written a poem they felt was “right” right away, and that everyone has over-revised a poem to the point of death. I have once or twice hoped a poem would be rejected because in the meantime I had a better idea for it, so there’s a lesson in that.

There’s a lot of truth in it. Over the last four years I’ve periodically had my poetry manuscript of the time looked at by publishers, and though it’s frustrating to have it refused, I’ve found fairly consistently that a year or so down the line I am almost glad not to have had it taken on, because distance from the work allows me to judge it more critically. Of course I’m very keen to be published, and I imagine that however good you get, you always prefer your recent work and squirm slightly at the older stuff. But I try not to feel too urgent about things, knowing that a couple of years’ distance is likely to reduce my frustration enormously. Ars longa, vita brevis, and all that. Ambition and frustration and vanity are all part of the vita, and may not necessarily serve the ars (heh).

A poet who was helping me put together a manuscript said to me, ‘Don’t put in anything that would make you blush if you were putting together your collected poems in thirty-five years time’. I do know that most of the work in my first pamphlet now embarrasses me.

I like Donald Hall, but this is pure posturing. Write your poem the best you can, revise it as long as you need, but don’t work the life out of it, and move on. Life, and possibly the world as we know it, is too short. That poem you kept home could have done some good work.

I recall that passage. The general idea of letting your poems sit for a while and coming back to them, even if you think you have a final draft, is a good one. I do think, though, that unless you’re a big name or a self-publisher, anything you write will have such a long shelf life between when you “finish” it and when it appears in a book that you don’t have to specifically worry about holding them back–it’ll happen naturally. That belief, of course, may be based on the fact that I’m an inveterate tinkerer. Of the previously published poems in my current manuscript, I’m sure at least 50% have been noticeably modified since they were published in journals.

Generally, my pieces undergo very lengthy gestational periods, frequently months, sometimes years. I had one piece published in 2003 that was originally written in 1969 and which I had tinkered with a number of times during the intervening years. So keeping pieces for several years is perfectly normal for me. To be completely honest, however, I have had a couple of pieces published only a few weeks after they were written; I suspect they would have been better had I kept them a while longer and fiddled with them more than I did.

A common pattern seems to be to write the poem, then after a few drafts to offer it for the criticism and suggestion of friends, to rewrite it in the light of those suggestions, then to put it away for a while before you do anything else with it. The length of time the poem should be lagered varies, but when it’s possible to look at it from beyond the state of mind and feeling that produced it, you can start to judge whether it has legs or not. Then you decide what you’re going to do with it. But I never regard a poem as finished, and still tinker with ones I wrote years ago. Sometimes I’ll take a poem through 30 or more drafts, then put it in my reject box.

10. KATY
Oh, it depends on the poem. And so much has been written about this, we all know how hard it is to get anything published nowadays: poets are keeping poems for years anyway by default. It’s true you should not rush into print. We’ve all done it – it’s a head rush and it gives you a hangover.

Absolutely agree. I tell students not to revise a first draft for a month, not to edit that for six months, and not to submit for a year. Donald Hall is not a favorite of mine; his wife was much the better poet.

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

  1. As an organic creation a poem may undergo changes like its writer and publication doesn’t mean it becomes solidified and beyond further attention. The idea that there is some preferred fermentation period, especially something like years, is fiction. I would have lost interest and moved on long ago . Anyway, the assumption that one is even able to rush into publication, doesn’t fit the facts of my experience.

  2. 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.

  3. I think it depends on the person. If you’re the kind of person that revises towards “safety,” (the way that I do) maybe it’s not such a hot idea to wait around until everything is a neat, boring bundle.

    On the other hand, I’m not the kind of person who believes that publication in a journal or book necessarily ends a poem’s life. I revise, rewrite, take chunks out of one poem and put them in another, and it doesn’t matter to me, really, that there’s an archived version of Revision #12 sitting on a shelf inside a journal. I don’t feel as if I’ve failed by publishing a less-than-perfect version of a poem. The changes I make to a poem aren’t just grammatical…they’re also conceptual, and the poem, as-it-was-conceived-then is just not the poem-as-it-would-be-conceived-today. I mean. I totally hope that when I’m 62, I blush at some of the poems I’m writing now. You know. I expect to continue to grow and I’m not sure I want to be thinking (or that I could) as if I had an extra 30-something years on my plate when I put together a manuscript. I want to write what I write now.

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