Review of Poem, Revised: 54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions
Edited by Robert Hartwell Fiske and Laura Cherry
Book cover art by Judy Benson
Marion Street Press, Inc., 2008
368 pages
Reviewed by Matthew Falk

To the uninitiated, poetry can look a lot like magic, a quasi-mystical product of pure inspiration. Notwithstanding our hardnosed era of MFA programs and the Death of the Author, many folks continue to cherish a Romantic image of the poet as a solitary übermensch of extraordinary sensitivity, looming on a windswept precipice (or, perhaps, perched on a bar stool) channeling iambs and couplets, a sort of lightning rod for verse. In reality, however, writing poems, like most things worth doing, takes a lot of hard and sometimes tedious work. Against both Wordsworth's well-known formula that "Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" and Ginsberg's rather pithier "First thought, best thought," one would do well to recall Yeats's admission in "Adam's Curse": "A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught."

That's why I find a book like Poem, Revised, edited by Robert Hartwell Fiske and Laura Cherry, so refreshing and valuable. Between its covers are 54 poems by contemporary American writers, each accompanied by a thoughtful essay recreating the poet's process of nurturing his or her poem from first draft to publication. In almost every case, it's a time-consuming process marked by false starts, fruitless detours, and difficult decisions. For fellow or aspiring poets, this text is a treasure trove of useful strategies; for general readers, it offers some fascinating and potentially demystifying insights into how poems work.

What unites the writers featured in this book is their shared awareness that revision, in Susan Rich's words, "is the difference between the adequate poem and the excellent one." They all take unique approaches, however, to the goal of excellence, with some working harder than others. At one end of the continuum is Shoshauna Shy, whose startling "Jeans, Size Zero" appears to have all but sprung fully armed from the poet's head, with only minimal subsequent labor. Her revisions, while not without impact, are mostly cosmetic, involving a handful of particular word choices. In contrast, Elizabeth Farrell treats the first draft of "Birthday Tulips" as "a kind of map to discover what is underneath the original layer of words." She deletes entire stanzas and radically truncates others, turning a long, discursive draft into a tight and subtle 10-line miniature. (I am reminded of Roethke's aphorism, "Any fool can take a bad line out of a poem; it takes a real pro to throw out a good line.") Jannett Highfill's account of her process is especially vivid: she gives us a graphic representation, with boxes and arrows, of how she reorganized the component parts of "Last In."

The range of revision strategies encountered in Poem, Revised is matched by the variety of poetic forms on display. There's lots of free verse, naturally, but in addition, Kathrine Varnes employs terza rima, Phil Hey tackles the villanelle, Scott Wiggerman and others revitalize the venerable sonnet, and Janis Butler Holm slices-and-dices Walt Whitman to create an experimental collage. Similar variety is seen with regard to subject matter. Beyond the de rigueur meditations on birds and relationships and death, we find ekphrastic poems, social-issue poems about anti-Semitism and HIV in Africa, poems about other poems, and more.

Mid-Michigan is represented in Poem, Revised by 360MainStreet's own Jeanne M. Lesinski, whose concrete poem "Through the Plots" was sparked by a radio news item about the strikingly named Disaster Mortuary Rescue Team and its efforts to salvage coffins and human remains from flooded cemeteries after Hurricane Katrina. In her essay, Lesinski includes a reproduction of her handwritten, very rough draft, along with a pencil drawing of the scene she hoped to describe. She goes on to explain the rationale behind each of the poem's images and many of its word choices and grammatical structures. Of particular interest to me was the poet's realization "that the arrangement of words on the page could also suggest … the patterns water makes when it flows around obstacles." Indeed, the layout of the final draft does immediately attract a reader's interest and, to some degree, reinforces the "meaning" of this haunting, understated poem about a topic that many lesser writers would have mishandled due to excessive sentimentality or lack of grace.

Nearly all the poems Cherry and Hartwell Fiske have chosen to include are first rate. As an anthology alone, I would recommend the book. Making it all but essential are the essays on craft, which are always insightful and often remarkably lyrical. The chance to observe accomplished creative artists at work is a rare privilege, and it is certainly reassuring to be reminded (to quote Susan Rich once again) that "no one gets it right the first time." 

© Matthew Falk, 2009