from Poetics.ca #4...
Vulnerability, Embarrassment and the Final Draft
How do poets ever know when poems are finished? Some revise obsessively, continuing to annotate the typeset versions long after they have appeared in books. Others seldom change a word or line break, the published poems barely departing from the first drafts. Are revisers forever preoccupied with freezing in words the flux their poems drown-proof in no matter how far they may drift from where they first surfaced? Do nonrevisers believe poems to be only as authentic as their original inspiration? Do revisers believe in perfectibility while their alter egos see perfection residing exclusively in the encapsulations of gesture? Do the former not trust their readers while the latter enjoy utter faith?
I am on the side of the revisers, I have to admit, however annoyed I may sometimes be with frivolous poets who write a poem in a single sitting. My first attempts are incoherent agony, but, afterwards, I sit obsessed at my computer recasting prosody, shifting line breaks, exploring the nuances of initially image-perfect, now suspect metaphors. Poems may take me months, years, decades to finish. I rescue them from the welter of words I keyboard into memory.
But, unlike many, I seldom consult or even save earlier drafts and instead move forward with the poem, unrepentantly indifferent, even ignorant and amnesic, of its past as it evolves, incarnation after incarnation, never looking back. I don't believe in false steps or mistakes. My favourite commands are "Cut" and "Delete." I love "Backspace," "Block" and "Insert."
And thank God for "Save."
Robert Creeley, as quoted by Charles Olson in his 1950 essay "Projective Verse," famously said "Form is never more than the extension of content." Later, in 1964, Denise Levertov, in an essay called "An Admonition," revised this to "Form is never more than the revelation of content."
It is revelation I am after.
As a gay poet.
As a writer.
I want to know what the poem is really about, what fires it. I need to find out. For me, not every possibility a poem may hold can be disclosed in a single draft or in a single read. Even reading is a kind of revision. Who steps into the same poem twice? Even the most simple of poems is visceral; it has depths to be repeatedly plumbed by reader and writer alike.
However, as I zero in on the final draft, I find I pull away, tamp my ardour for the poem, and begin to consider how it might be understood and experienced by others. I never expect a sympathetic reading, though up to this point I have only written in order to be heard and understood. I finetune the poem's optics, street-proofing it for what I know to be a cruel, sadly negligent world. I begin to write more defensively, find myself attempting to balance honesty with plausibility. I have discovered this balance hinges exclusively on the compromise to be struck between embarrassment and vulnerability.
The poet is always the first reader of his own work. He and, in my case, the poet is "male" but what I am about to say may apply, if anyone wishes, to poets of whatever gender, orientation, race, fetish, or chosen subjectivity (though I often think of "he" in verbal ploys such as this one as generic, neuter, gay the lacuna where the subversive is possible) must learn to separate himself from the experience of the poem and read it from outside. He must train himself to be ruthless, to be sensitive to every social and aesthetic nuance and valence of language. He must be paranoid and alert to the bathetic. He must also endeavour to preserve his innocence.
Embarrassment has everything to do with technique, with how well language is deployed; vulnerability is tied entirely to what the poem is about, to what it expresses.
I write against embarrassment and cultivate vulnerability.
Form must never imperil content except on purpose.
I aim to write myself free of the poorly executed, but I resist the avoidance of any discomfort I might feel about the poem's subject experience that might otherwise inhibit my deeper expression of it. I ignore anyone looking over my shoulder. I know I am getting somewhere (wherever somewhere may be) when I feel exposed by what I am revealing not necessarily exposed personally (vulnerability is not a trope for confession or for confessional poetry), but by the specifics the poem enunciates, or renders into being.
Poetry is emphatically a mimetic aesthetic experience that transcribes not reality but a sensibility. The challenge any writer faces involves distinguishing oxbows of language from the backwaters of theme.
The avoidance of one over the other is never a rapid capitulation towards the decorous.
To be decorous is to fail.
I am not a laureate hired to write apostrophes.
Creeley and Levertov may not have anticipated an aesthetic of embarrassment and vulnerability when they coined what would become signature directives to later poets who, like me, have baroquely layered on their own gilt and feathers.
Would Frank O'Hara, more than forty years after his death, despair of the twenty-first century? In his essay "Personism: A Manifesto," he said, "The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out." If he could, would he look me up and down, shrug his shoulders as he leaves the Museum of Modern Art after a brilliant day getting it right about Jackson Pollock, assume everyone was watching, and think me a charlatan?
Talk about public shame!
Earlier in "Personism," which he wrote in September 1959, two and a half years after I was born, he said, "Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you."
Don't ask me to write essays; it hurts.
(Maybe only Canadian poets feel embarrassed and vulnerable.)
Olson's typewriter sits on the curb of history, waiting to be recycled.
A computer sits in its place on my desk. How intrinsically it captures the ways in which the imagination moves forwards to satiation despite (and because of) every random turn, any subtle shift, each unexpected aside so intuitively rendering itself in language.
Words registered in ever increasing memory by keystrokes or erased.
Vulnerability registered, embarrassment erased.
With intimations of finality.
Perhaps Creeley and Levertov saw their aphorisms as invocations to be spontaneous, to be like lovers in tune with language's sensuality and intellectual pulse. Form and content seductively leading one another on, endeavouring, hoping to be as one.
Not to exhort us to painstaking revision.
Not to tip the pornographic, for example, towards the erotic.
Or perhaps I indulge in conjecture.
Remember that I said I was ignorant.
Remember that I say true revision by (my) definition is intuitive and results in poems that appear effortless. Poems that look as if they could be written in no other way, that could take form through no other combination of words. All final drafts, thus, become first drafts, so assured are they that they stand as intense approximations of the immediate.
Form and content are not indifferent to one another.
Technique is never less than the articulation of what makes us vulnerable.
What makes us human.
Denise Levertov. The Poet in the World. New Directions Paperbacks. New York, 1974.
Frank O'Hara. The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara. Donald Allen, ed. Vintage. New York, 1974.
Charles Olson. Projective Verse. Totem Press. New York, 1959.
John Barton has published eight award-winning books of poetry, and five chapbooks, including Great Men (Quarry Press, 1990), Designs from the Interior (House of Anansi Press, 1994), Sweet Ellipsis (ECW Press, 1998), Hypothesis (House of Anansi Press, 2001) and Runoff (Viola Leaflets, 2003). He co-edited We All Begin in A Little Magazine: Arc and the Promise of Canada's Poets, 1978-1998 (Carleton University Press, 1998) with Rita Donovan. With Billeh Nickerson, he is currently co-editing Seminal: The Anthology of Canadian Gay-Male Poetry for publication by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2006. Asymmetries, a limited-edition collection of slip-cased chapbooks, was published by Frog Hollow Press in spring 2004. Co-editor of Arc: Canada's National Poetry Magazine in Ottawa from 1990 to 2003, he is now the editor of The Malahat Review at the University of Victoria.
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