February 26, 2015

How Long Will You Revise a Poem?

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was an extremely methodical  and downright slow writer. I was surprised to read that she only published 101 poems in her lifetime.

She worked on her poem “The Moose” on and off for more than 25 years. I have poems from 25 years ago that I still look at and revise, but I can't say that I have been "working on them" for all that time. For "The Moose," she had it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines.

We all have our distractions. For Bishop, writing letters was one. (Perhaps today, she would be online and in email.) She once wrote 40 letters in a single day and said, “I sometimes wish that I had nothing, or little more, to do but write letters to the people who are not here.” A collection of her letters, One Art: Letters, was published in 1994.

I don't classify coming back to a poem written years ago and making changes as the same kind of revision as when I sit down every day for a week trying to get a poem to a place where I feel comfortable reading it to an audience or sending it out to the world.

I also have notebooks of typed and printed poems that feel unfinished that I rarely look at and even more rarely work on any more.

What is your revision process?


Here is the opening of "The Moose."

The Moose
For Grace Bulmer Bowers

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches...








1 comment:

  1. "Moonlight as we enter
    the New Brunswick woods,
    hairy, scratchy, splintery;
    moonlight and mist
    caught in them like lamb’s wool
    on bushes in a pasture."

    If I knew it would result in something as good as the above, I'd revise every day until 2040.

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