Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 2 — revision)

One of the major foci of the Sharpened Visions course is the art of revision: a word that was anathema to me for probably all of my teenage years. As mentioned in my previous post, for most of my life I have written poetry as the muse took me, and only as the muse took me. (I’ve never had a problem revising prose — but poetry has always felt different to me for some reason.) When I was writing poems, whatever I wrote was what I ended up with — as if every word, image, and line had been graven in stone instead of scribbled on paper. What the muse dictated, I wrote — period.

This wasn’t optimal.

That’s not to say that everything I wrote before I learned to revise properly was garbage. But neither was it as strong as it could have been, had I the gumption to sit back and critically evaluate my own words, rather than treating them as if they were so precious as to be immutable. I felt very strongly that to edit my words would be a betrayal of the words as they came to me — though where this feeling originated I can’t say.

There were two main factors in play, I think. The first was my peculiar understanding of inspiration (and the tendency to treat my own work as if it were Inspired rather than inspired). The second was laziness. Revision, after all, takes some work. Drafting takes work. It’s much easier to just tell yourself, “well, I write to final, is all” and let that be the end of things. The tricky thing is that usually I could get away with this. Even into undergrad, I would write one first-and-final draft of my essays and hand them in; while my grades weren’t spectacular, they were certainly good enough. So if I could get myself inspired (or close enough), write one draft, and pass with a healthy average — where was the impetus to revise? There simply wasn’t any.

Somewhere around the time I started showing my poetry to my writers’ group, I started to get serious about drafting and revising. Some of that has to do with actually showing my work to others, but a lot had to do with observing other members of the group as they carefully reworked and reshaped what they had until it was what they had meant it to be all along. It was there that I first realised the value that others could contribute to my work, as they gently challenged me to make it better. And it was there that I learned to relish being able to serve others in the same way.

All of this was cemented during the process of writing my thesis for my masters degree. My advisor was fairly hands-off during the writing process — thank goodness! — but his editing suggestions on my draft chapters were insightful. I almost never agreed with him the first time I read his comments, but as I looked at what I had written through someone else’s eyes and began the work of revising, reworking, reshaping, rewriting… I found that his critiques inevitably made my work stronger. He forced me to push and pull at my words until they said exactly what I needed them to, no more and no less. I am very grateful for his help as I learned to do this.

Instead of worshiping at inspiration’s altar, I am now a devotee of the craft of revision. I don’t even transcribe my poems onto the computer now until they’ve been through at least three drafts in my notebook. Sometimes a poem changes into something almost unrecognisable as it moves through drafts, which is what my younger self was afraid would happen. But this is relatively rare. More often, the craft of revision enables a poem to become, in the end, more like itself than it ever was before — and there is the real value of revising.