Years ago – but maybe not so many years ago – my process of writing poetry was relatively straightforward. And immensely naïve. I used to think (subconsciously at least) that the first words written had some kind of ‘sacred’ quality to them; that because they had come first, were the outpourings of ‘the Muse’, had been gifted to me by some mythical force, then they should be left pretty much alone. In those days, editing perhaps involved changing three or four words. How could it be anything other than that?
I’m not sure exactly what triggered the change, my departure from this romantic notion of being a poet. I suspect it was two things: the first, publishing, and the rigour of wanting to ensure that what you launched into the world was as good as it could be at that particular moment in time; and the second, going to writing groups where there was a standard to be measured against, where the ‘ante’ had been ‘upped’, where people could – in the nicest possible way – call your bluff. And actually, thinking about it, there was a third: starting to write the occasional ‘found poem’ where the words aren’t yours in the first place. Indeed, this may have been the greatest influence.
In any event, the end result of this unconscious transformation is that now the first words I write in a new poem are often no more than way markers, like a painter roughing out a sketch on a canvass. Over time, words are added, taken away; how they look on the page has become more important; there are questions of style and tone; intellectual questions about voice and meaning. It’s less random. The work – and it is work – is much more artisanal, if not like a painter then possibly like a sculptor. Because there is chipping away involved. Often I will draft a poem and then tweak it every day or every other day for potentially weeks on end. Although a poem is never truly ‘finished’, I find my measure of completeness is if I haven’t altered a piece in the last three of four times I’ve looked at it, then it’s probably good enough – for now at least.
This may sound a little – I don’t know – ‘excessive’, but it’s actually very liberating. I no longer feel enslaved to the first words I write; indeed, quite the opposite. So even the smallest adjustment – like the removal of a single word during the twentieth brief edit – is to be celebrated.
So it isn’t magic. It’s lots of hard work and practice. Patience and practice. And – hopefully – one day the magic will arrive..!