This is the ninth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each Tuesday for a new Craft Capsule.
“Too many hours of revising—to no clear end!” my student complains. He is tired. He feels like the poem never really gets better. There’s always more work to do.
Welcome to revision: the arbitrary realm in which we debate “the” versus “an,” “this” versus “that.” Spend an hour putting a comma in. An hour later, take it out.
Part of the problem is that we complicate the revision process by making our aims abstract. One big revision, we promise ourselves, will make the poem “better.” Don’t privilege “better,” which is a meaningless term. Assign clear and objective tasks. Devote one round of revision exclusively to heightening your imagery, another to reconsidering your verb choices, a third to playing with lineation or tense.
Think of each revision as an experiment. Often these experiments will feel like evolutionary progress, and you’ll keep their results intact. Not always, especially as you near the end of the revision process. When the new version fails to appeal—when you find yourself resisting, reverting, defending an earlier choice—you are locating the poem’s true form. You are identifying what makes this poem yours, and yours alone.
Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.