The Poetry 2%

Spring cleaning seems to lead inevitably to poetry, at least for me. I think it’s the hyper-focus on objects and surfaces, combined with the repetitive motions of cleaning that keep the hands busy but leave the mind free to wander fruitfully. This year that combination resulted in a poem about my refrigerator, which is not as boring as it probably sounds (I think).

poetesque, over at The Poetic Licence1 was kind enough to ask to see the poem, and kinder still to send a few words about it. “I love your sound-play,” she said. “How long did it take you to make that work, because that is something I struggle with.”

And I had to reply, somewhat shame-facedly, “The sound play just kind of happened. This is, in my opinion, the most annoying thing about poetry—the poems that work come together pretty quickly and without tons of conscious thought, and the ones that don’t work right out of the gate I can fuss over forever and they still never quite get to where I hoped they would.”

poetesque agreed. “I know, I know…. The 98% of poems that you struggle over and rewrite for ten years, vs. the 2% that just hang together from the start. I’ve partially concluded that the successful, well-known poets I admire have figured out how to push more of that 98% into the other camp.”

Now, this was interesting. I, too, thought those successful poets were doing something differently than I, but I assumed that they were just giving up on the 98% sooner: cutting their losses quickly and getting on to the next poem that might be in that magical 2%.

I think that this was, in part, an overreaction to a tendency I had when first writing poetry to focus on a single poem, determined to get it perfect before I’d let myself move on to the next one. Not surprisingly, this made for excruciatingly slow progress, and a lot of overworked poems. One promise I’ve made myself this semester—in a counter-overreaction, I’m sure—is that I will only send new poems to my advisor. I’m getting my group of poems to the best point I can within each month, and then I’m putting them aside. I have written a lot more this semester, and I think the base quality of my work is also somewhat improved. And I know that this is not unrelated to letting go of that crabbed perfectionism, at least for now.

But I also think the real answer to the question of what the successful poets do is closer to poetesque’s take on it, and I’m sure I will spend some future semester focused on revision techniques.

In fact, I have a test case for this theory of whether a terrible first (or second or third) draft can be rehabilitated that I am working on right now. I’ve got a draft that, as my advisor says, “has all the parts of a poem, but isn’t a poem,” an assessment that is both succinct and absolutely true. The central image is one that has gripped me since I was a child, and I am loathe to give up on it, though I am now five drafts in and things are still getting worse, rather than better. Can this poem be saved? I promise an answer in a future post…

1 If you do not follow her blog, you really should. So much deeper and more thoughtful than the superficial chitchat you get in this neighborhood…

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