Recently I got into an on-line debate, which at times became a little sharp, about whether poems could come fully formed into the world without need for revision, or whether revision was always required. I do revise my poems, but usually on very small points, and was concerned to question an implication that high-quality, serious, “professional” poems must emerge from a process of revision, since some of my best published poems did nothing of the sort. I think with the help of others in the discussion we reached a degree of common ground.
The person I was debating this with, a lecturer, poet and editor, made a number of very useful points about common faults in poetry and how to improve work. I thought this very helpful and agreed with most, but had reservations, which I expressed, about her advice to be specific. She gave the example of referring without description to a fish. I suggested that a fish could be a symbol (like the Christian fish symbol) or could appear in a dream – and only fishermen dreamed about chub or rudd. That seems quite a good line, so I might use it some time. She had a point, though, and it got me thinking. I pursued this by two examples, one prose and one poetry.
Let’s say someone writes, “He carried her limp, lifeless body back into the house and laid it gently on the cherrywood table.” I’d suggest that telling us the table was cherrywood distracts from what should be the centre of our attention, the man and the body. We shouldn’t be paying much attention to the table at this point. It would be different, though, if the woman had remarked earlier to the man with delight that the table was cherrywood and it reminded her of one in her parents’ home. If the table was topped with green baize, though, this would give us a powerful visual image especially if combined with our awareness that the woman was dressed in a contrasting colour such as white or red. It still might be best, though, to concentrate on the human tragedy.
Now here’s a verse from a poem of dreamlike quality. Let’s see if being more specific and helping the reader to see things more vividly helps. I apologise that I couldn’t preserve the rhyme or scansion of the original. I also apologise if I misquote, because I’m quoting from memory.
LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI
O, what can ail thee, wretched knight
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is withered from the lake
And no birds sing.
Now the improved version, more specific in description:
LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI
O, what can ail thee, wretched, short, broad-shouldered knight with a hooked nose,
Alone and palely loitering, repeatedly walking a few steps up and down?
The pale brown sedge is withered from the calm, shallow, kidney-shaped lake
And no birds sing within half a mile.