Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Please Stop Explaining: Poetry Revision 101

Don't speak
I know just what you're saying
So please stop explaining
Don't tell me cause it hurts
Don't speak
I know what you're thinking
I don't need your reasons
Don't tell me cause it hurts

—“Don’t Speak,” No Doubt

May is the perfect month to think about revision. If you wrote a bunch of poems for National Poetry Month in April, you now have a bunch of drafts and might be wondering where’s a good place to start revising. I’ve got a great one for you: stop explaining.

Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to PoetsIt’s not an original idea. In fact, I just read a great article about it by David Keplinger called “Hiding Your Heart’s Desire.” In my perpetual quest for the perfect poetry textbook, I just picked up Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. I read Keplinger’s article first because of the title, thinking it would be about combating the Hallmark monster. Instead, it’s a fine meditation/exercise (all the articles in this so far great book follow the same pattern) on the value of cutting back the explanation in your poems. Keplinger’s exercise involves choosing the two best lines in the poem and rewriting it from scratch. That sounds like fun, but first you must understand what I mean by “explanation.”

My long-time guru, William Zinsser, talks about trusting your material. This is ever more important in poetry, where we often reach for the improbable connection, the funky analogy, the bare-bones language. Will my reader understand what I mean when I talk about the tiger in my cup? Maybe I better explain I mean the whiskey in my coffee. And so, we find ourselves explaining away our poetry as if we were teaching instead of writing. The problem with explaining is that we deny the reader the pleasure of discovery. To touch back on my other guru, David Bottoms, we philosophize too much. The job of the poet, Bottoms explains, is to “make the world material on the page, so that the reader can abstract, so that the reader can take what clues the world offers and decipher meaning from them. The poet wants the reader to participate, to experience the event in a vivid way.” When we explain what we mean in a poem, it’s like we’re chewing the food for the reader. The poem is predigested, and the reader gets no flavor, no joy, no interaction. It’s like those horrible workshops where the writer keeps interrupting with “what I meant was . . . .” Like those horrible moments, explanations don’t work. Either your writing is meaningful, or it isn’t. Interpreting your own poem isn’t going to change that.

But maybe I should stop explaining.

Behold an early draft of a poem by my old student, Justin Simmons:

The Perfect House

Vintage wallpaper used to cover the walls, but even the intricacies of this baby-blue floral
pattern cannot conceal the scars and bruises left behind.

Mahogany flooring imported all the way from Argentina, but these wooden puzzle pieces cannot keep firm the foundations of this family.

A furnace used to warm the house during winter, but cannot warn the hearts of its inhabitants.

A French door made of white cedar, but for its superior wood type it cannot muffle the wails of an unhappy infant.

A thousand thread-count white linens made of the finest Egyptian cotton in an antique crib, but these white threads are no more than a rag in the eyes of a child.

Vibrant images of butterflies painted on the walls of the nursery, but the wings of these butterflies cannot carry away the sorrows of a heavyhearted child.

Toys in abundance, but these idle ornaments are unattainable to the little fingers that want to play with them.

It would appear that this is the perfect house; perfect wallpaper; perfect flooring, perfect furnace, perfect door, perfect linens, perfect paintings, and perfect toys.

This is not a bad draftthe poem contains the one thing all poems need in great abundance: stuff. The carefully chosen details are all tactile and specific: vintage wallpaper, imported flooring, white cedar. Each of the details Justin chose spoke to a whole era of fancy décor. The problem is, he didn’t trust us to understand what he means. Each detail, each line, contains an explanation, a clarification of the obvious symbolism involved. The poem is so weighed down, all a reader can do with it is discard it. The poem doesn’t let me think. The symbolism is all wrung out. Take a look at the same poem, sans the explanations:


Vintage wallpaper used to cover the walls.
Mahogany flooring imported all the way from Argentina.
A furnace used to warm the house during winter.
A French door made of white cedar.
A thousand thread-count white linens
made of the finest Egyptian cotton in an antique crib.
Vibrant images of butterflies painted on the walls of the nursery.
Toys in abundance.

Despite being cut back to less than one third the length of the first draft, this poem now weighs much more. We are allowed to focus on each detail and its potential meanings without the distraction of chatter. Even the reduction of the title is suddenly imbued with symbolism. “The Perfect House” is explanatory, but the single word “Perfect” invites us to dwell on the concept of perfection itself, and its desirability given the obvious context of the “perfect” items in the poem. With each material detail, we notice the absence of any humans, any family, in this poemwithout having to be told. The new last line of the poem is especially impactfulsuddenly, we understand that all these things the poem has laid out before our eyes are nothing but toys, playthings with no real life. The last wordabundanceinvites further scrutiny. What sort of abundance is this? The poem is now full of irony, and chilling in its starkness. This is a great poem!

It’s one of those well-known stories teachers love to repeat: how Elie Wiesel cut the manuscript of Night from over 800 pages to less than 200. But it’s a great lesson. Another old-time trick is to envision that every word in your poem (or any kind of writing, really) is costing you money. I like to think of it as $10 a word. Really makes you think about what you need and don’t need in your poem! But it’s also a matter of envisioning your reader. To whom are you writing? Sometimes, when you’re in workshop, you’re writing to students, people who are not necessarily avid or expert readers of poetry. This exacerbates the impulse to explain. Forget them! Write to the best reader you can imagine. It might be the professor, or an editor or other poet. Reading lots of poetry yourself and lots of criticismas alwaysalso helps. This is how you learn what others are capable and not capable of “getting.” Even when you identify an image or a reference that your most expert ideal reader will not get, what you should do is revise the image or reference, and not explain the obscure one. Obscurity is bad, even if you explain it. Just don’t explain, ever.

Don't speak,
I know what you're thinking
And I don't need your reasons
I know you're good,
I know you're good,
I know you're real good.

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