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"The Poet's Revisions" from XJ Kennedy's Introduction to Poetry, 1966.

[broken into shorter parts for readability, emphasis added in bold]

"He / Who casts to write a living line must sweat, /...and strike the second heat / Upon the Muse's anvil," wrote Ben Johnson. Indeed, few if any immortal poems can have been perfected with the first blow. The labor of revising seems the usual practice of most bards (other than the Bard of Avon, if we believe the famous rumor that in "whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line").

A study of these versions is valuable to anyone who cares to observe how a finished poem comes to be. More important to anyone who wishes to read poetry well, we stand to learn something about the rightness of a poem by comparing its successive drafts. If the poet is a master who kept revising over many years, as Yeats did, we may learn a great deal. Revising his work, the poet has had to make some merciless evaluations. By setting earlier and later versions side by side, we may see the difference between the weak line, merely decent line, or even very good linke he discarded, and the line he finally chose.

A novice poet who regards his first draft as inviolable sometimes loses interest in a poem if anyone suggests he do more work on it. But other poets have found excitement in the task ("What bliss!" Yeats exclaimed, looking forward to weeks of laborious rewriting.) Indeed, "the work of correction is often quite as inspired as 'the first onrush of words and ideas,'" as A.F. Scott remarks on revision by English poets (in The Poet's Craft) ...

Not all revisions are successful.... But when he revises effectively - when we agree with his second thought - the poet is changing his meaning for the better. He enriches it, he finds words that speak with greater precision and economy.

Citation:

Kennedy, X.J. An Introduction to Poetry. Little, Brown and Company, 1966, pp. 258 - 260.

My take: This introduction to a chapter on the different versions of poems from many master poets throughout the centuries (including Horace, Yeats, Rilka, Coleridge, and others), Kennedy demonstrates the value of revision. Although the chapter doesn't necessarily suggest that these great writers had peers who gave them suggestions (in fact, it almost seems like Kennedy suggestions revision comes solely from the writer with their "merciless evaluations" and the disdain for "anyone [who] suggests he do more work on it" that many poets have) we can safely assume that many did.

I wanted to share it because it goes to show that even textbooks and prominent poetry scholars are in favor of revision. This text was published in the 1960s, when Post-Structuralism came to be as a literary theory, which states that "to understand an object (e.g., a text), it is necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-structuralism).

I think this textbook from Kennedy being concurrent with this literary theory makes perfect sense. Understanding why we write and why its important to revise doesn't stop at understanding the forms of poetry or the ways of making revisions; it extends to asking ourselves why we can and why we should, and like the Wikipedia article states, what "systems of knowledge" are at play here.

I think one system at play today is the immediate gratification and instant communication of our online world. As a digital native ("a person born or brought up during the age of digital technology and therefore familiar with computers and the Internet from an early age" --> Google's definition), I do love the instantaneous ability for me to connect with people all over the world, share my life in digital diaries that are less fleeting than printed photos or paper journals, and to learn anything I desire to know in a second.

Yet, I think more than ever before these same privileges that the Internet gives us also can bring about the worst in people or lead people to inflate themselves with constructed personas that are more constructed than they ever could be "IRL" (in real life). I can show the world exactly what parts of myself I want it to see, in a perfectly edited manner thanks to photo editing and other technology. Yet, if we do it enough (present a hyper-edited version of ourselves) without stepping back and reminding ourselves that no one is perfect, we lose touch with reality. We start to convince ourselves that everything we do is perfect. We start to forget all the revision we did to put on that perfect persona. We say things like "it came from the heart" when it comes to our poetry, followed by assertions that constructive feedback is cruel.

In 1711, Alexander Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism” a poem all about how horrible critics of the time were (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69379/an-essay-on-criticism), including such memorable quips as:

“'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill/ Appear in writing or in judging ill” (it’s hard to say whether there is a greater lack of skill among writers or among those who judge writers)

“Authors are partial to their wit, 'tis true,/ But are not critics to their judgment too?” (it’s true that authors think rather highly of themselves, but critics are the same about their criticism)

“But you who seek to give and merit fame,/ And justly bear a critic's noble name, /Be sure yourself and your own reach to know, / How far your genius, taste, and learning go; / Launch not beyond your depth, but be discreet, /And mark that point where sense and dullness meet. (if you want to be a critic/critique, make sure you know your place and don’t bite off more than you can chew, be discreet, and avoid obsessing over correctness and becoming a bore)

“So vast is art, so narrow human wit” (art is so much more than anyone can comprehend)

These parts of the poem, I find, best demonstrate that Pope had terrible experiences with critics of the day, but still his words remind me of people today who seem to be experiencing this false sense of perfection that comes with instant gratification. Many people in the arts share his same sentiments today and have done so throughout the centuries. I think part of the problem is that we don’t always distinguish between the, “critic” and other readers who would make comments. Yes, there are critics, like in film, whose opinion seems applauded for no good reason. Did they even study film? Have they ever tried to make a movie? Who gave them this platform to say such impactful things in the first place? But these critics, and the ones I think Pope had a problem with, I think, had something to gain by being cruel. I think critics of Pope’s could have gained a lot by defaming him, humiliating him, in that time, because appearances and reputation could make or break a person’s entire livelihood, whether facts were presented or not. A few bad reviews, metaphorically yelled loudly enough, could have discredited Pope and kept him from ever publishing again, whether he was a good person or a good writer or not. Something similar could be true today with film. A film that should have been a box office hit could take a nosedive if a prominent enough critic slams it after the premier, whether it was a good movie made by good people or not.

I also suspect that he may have penned “So vast is art, so narrow human wit” as an excuse. Maybe he didn’t, I don’t know him and can’t know him, but I think it was his way of saying “I’m just too good at art. Y’all just can’t understand my art. Too avant-garde, too highbrow, for you lowlifes to understand or even appreciate.” It is true that the scope of art is too much for any one person to fully comprehend, but every subject is. It’s a given. But it doesn’t feel like he’s just stating the obvious. Why would he need to? Maybe he’s using this “obvious statement” as derision of the very critics who derided him, to try to put them in their place.  

I say all this because this type of criticism (someone saying bad things about another person’s work because they have something to gain from it) has nothing to do with revision, workshops, and critique at all, in my humble opinion. When a poet joins a workshop, they are working with other writers, other people who do actually study the craft. Yes, maybe “critics” as I’ve described above have no sense about writing and only have their opinions of what they like, but in a workshop, online or in real life, that’s not who the poet is interacting with. They are interacting with other students and other artists, and other teachers. (don’t get me started on “those who can’t do, teach”).

If you want to learn and grow as a writer, being stuck in the mindset that there are critics out to get you and hurt you is only going to hinder you. Thinking that the greats “wrote from the heart” and didn’t experience the learning process or make revisions is only going to hinder you. Thinking you are exempt from the conversation about learning and change just because of your age, experience, or some other factor, is only going to hinder you. Seriously. If you care about writing and want to use your writing to help yourself or anyone else for that matter, you will benefit from making the effort. You will benefit from aspiring to have even one fraction of the enthusiasm about revision as W.B. Yeats did.

 

Comments

I would only add (did I miss it? I read it twice looking for it) that on Neopoet when we make revisions a 'Revisions' tab appears above the title next to View and Edit.

This is a valuable tool for both writer and reader and often fascinating to track the evolution of a piece.

cheers,
Jess
Neopoet Managing Directors, with Richard (themoonman)

You're totally right, I forgot to mention it even though that was part of the point. I got side tracked! Will make a separate post about using the Revision tab and link to it ASAP.

Kels

Advocates Coordinator

Critique, don't comment.

To see our learning resources, click the "Curated Resources" link under the Resources tab in the top menu bar.

www.kelsey-burroughs.weebly.com

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