I’m convinced that there is nothing more important to a good poetic than craft. It isn’t publication.
Sure, publishing credits are great for the ego. But I’d much rather have one great poem than 100 mediocre ones. I’d much rather publish one great book of poems than 100 mediocre books. I think that too many poets rush to publication without putting forth the necessary hours in revision. Revision is the essence of craft.
That’s not to say that there aren’t poems that can come to you in a flash and they are publication ready the moment you receive them. It could happen. But I always wince when I hear a poet say that he rarely revises a poem. A poet that doesn’t revise is like a mechanic that doesn’t tighten his screws. How many wheels will fall off before you realize that your poetry needs a few more tighter lug nuts?
I recently took another look at Rumsfeld’s Sandbox, which has been languishing in my desk drawer for over a year now. I ceased to put much work into it when my grandchildren came to live with me last year. I just haven’t had the time and my concentration has been lowered as a result of the (mostly) welcome distraction. Now that they have gone to live with their mother again I decided to take another look at the manuscript. I’ve felt all along that something was missing and allowing it to sit for a year has allowed me to put some distance on it. I was right. There are a few pockets of dead air.
I started thinking on this because a local poet just published her second book of poems in as many years. Her first book was published rather suddenly. She took a little more time with the second one, she said. And it shows. A part of the problem is she didn’t do much revision on the first book of poems. Again, it shows.
What Is Psychological Distance?
Psychological distance doesn’t come in just one form. There is the distance that you can put on your poetry, which is good for the crafting of poems in most cases. But that kind of psychological distance is secondary when it comes to covering topics that are difficult to write about, particularly topics of a personal nature.
In my friend’s case, the topic was the death of her husband. In my case, it’s the unjust war that is known as the Iraq War. The more distanced I become from the event itself, the more I find myself able to write about it in more nuanced terms and less from my emotional reaction to it. The emotion is important, but good writing rarely takes place from pure emotion. It is emotion filtered through the lens of intellect, or adjusted by reasonable critical controls.
After looking at the manuscript for the first time in over a year, I decided that some of the poems had to go. It’s not that they didn’t possess certain qualities that might prevent them from being published. It’s that they didn’t really belong. They were out of place.
A well-written poem that is out of place in a manuscript is just as bad as a poorly written poem that tries to fit in. When you are writing around a certain theme then you should go through every pain possible to ensure that all the pieces fit into the theme. Otherwise, don’t write around that theme.
I am nearly done with Rumsfeld’s Sandbox. I realize that you have to finish it up at some point. Just a few extractions, a couple of revisions, and maybe the addition of one or two more poems to fill in the dead air and that will be it. In all but a few rare cases, psychological distancing can strengthen a poem or an entire manuscript.
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