notes on revision: the philosophical, or, get rid of what ain’t no wolf

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So, Reader, I’ve been thinking about revision. April is Poetry Month and many poets are gearing up to write a poem a day for April. I typically join in this drafting festival, but this year my intuition is saying, You’d be better off doing a revision a day than a poem a day. Of course, as much as I’d prefer diving into new work, I know my intuition is right. I do not need 30 more unfinished, mostly mediocre poems. I need to polish what I’ve been working on lately and send it out into the world.

So, over the last few weeks I’ve been gathering up every bit of revision advice I’ve collected over the years, and I want to share it with you. As I looked it over, I realized it fell into four categories: the philosophical, the usual, the useful, and the radical. I’m planning a post on each category. We’ll start today with “the philosophical,” then drill down to the nitty gritty in “the usual” and “the useful.” We’ll end up with “the radical” — which I hope will generate enthusiasm for the revision work that awaits.

And speaking of philosophical, my philosophy is that most advice for revision is also good advice for life, so I’ll be commenting on that from time to time as well.

Let us begin:

Michelangelo, it is said, believed that his role as sculptor was to free the work of art contained within a block of marble. The quote, as I’m finding it online, is:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as thought it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

Elie Weisel has similar thoughts about writing:

“Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.”

To me, both of these philosophies encourage us to understand what a poem is, or wants to be, and to apply our poetic skills to honor that, to bring forth the poem. In this post, I talked about drafting the poem “Letter to Rodin.” I wanted the poem to be about suffering. I fought tooth and nail to make the poem be about suffering! Eventually, I accepted that the poem wanted to be about longing. As soon as I accepted that, and began to work in concert with the poem’s impulse, the draft came together.

I don’t read either of these quotes to mean that we must always cut in revisions. Sometimes, it’s the large silence around a poem that must be cut out — the poem must push its way into that space a bit more to fully unfold.

These quotes do, however, ask us to honor the piece of art for what it truly is and to bring it forth. Sometimes this takes time. Sometimes it takes years, even. If you’re not sure what a poem is trying to be, set it aside for a while. I have a Resting Drawer for just this purpose. Do you have a Resting Drawer? Look through it from time to time. The poem’s impulse may dawn on you one day, and then you can get to work again.

And as in writing, so in life: one of our great tasks as human beings is to cut away at all that is not authentically us; to, instead, be true to the shape of our souls.

My favorite way for remembering this advice in writing and in life comes from the Old Country, also known as The Township, a little spot in northern Michigan that’s home for me. In The Township there’s a man who does snow and ice sculptures. Once, commenting on a sculpture of a wolf he’d carved, he said his process had been to “get rid of what ain’t no wolf” (I am indebted to Gerry for passing along this bit of advice to me. If you want to know about The Township, Gerry’s blog is the place to find out).

Get rid of what ain’t no wolf. That’s a philosophy I can sign up for.

9 thoughts on “notes on revision: the philosophical, or, get rid of what ain’t no wolf

  1. Oh, I love this! Letting the poem that wants to be emerge from the block of stone or the silence! I wish you well with your revisions in April, and I look forward to your promised blog entries on revision. I just typed up the poem-a-day prompts for my workshop participants, reminding them that these drafts will then need to sit for a while (I will tell them about your “resting drawer”) and then enjoy some revision!

  2. I’ve always loved his philosophy on sculpting… It is applicable to so many art forms. I’ve also loved the idea that plays are never finished, merely abandoned. 🙂

    I find the revision process terrifying. I tend to wait a very long time between writing and revision so that the infatuation with a turn of phrase or a word that just doesn’t fit has faded enough that it’s no longer painful to remove or replace it.

    Good luck with April – may it be fruitful!

    • Aha! — another good use for the Resting Drawer (yes, all the poems I have big crushes on go there too, for exactly the reason you state).

    • Brenda, glad you find the post helpful. I am really learning a lot myself just by taking the time to review and reflect on what I’ve learned about revision over the years.

  3. Pingback: NaPoRevMo and the usual suspects | the stanza

  4. Pingback: on revision: darlings, poetry hairballs, getting better gas mileage, and surgery. or, the useful. | the stanza

  5. Pingback: on revision: surgery, funhouse mirrors, and abandoning ship. or, the radical. | the stanza

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