Jorie Graham on revision


That some poems are given and some are struggled-for, and wrestled-with, down to the last syllable. I think this experience is true for many poets, over the ages. And the “given” one can be infuriating. Where did it come from? How dare it just show up and sit there? No matter how much you’d like to work on it, it just sits there, finished, untouchable. It’s obviously a very rare event. It’s baffling. That poem is not necessarily a better poem—it just arrives entire. In truth it’s a dead end. You don’t learn much from writing it. It’s a gift. The little that we get for free. As such, perhaps not really the kind of gift you want. But of course we are thirsty.


I have always told myself that all those poems sweaty with massive revision create a residue, which just lands on you as a “given” poem. But that’s just another bedtime story. To keep a different ghost away. The ghost of the total mystery which is poetry. Why does it show up, and disappear, as it wishes. Where does it come from—I feel composers have a better idea than we do. And, mostly, what are these hot tools, and what are they doing to me, using me, as I go on, believing I am using them. I am using them. But they are changing me. They are using me to get a poem written. Because, in my experience, the one way you know you have got a poem before you, and not just the account of a poem, is if you are not the same creature who sat down to struggle with that angel, that subject, that occasion. The silence you broke to utter the first syllable is not the same silence that closes back over after the last syllable. It’s just not. The silence—or what’s in the silence—has changed its nature. If one isn’t in it to be changed by the act of writing a poem I have no idea why in god’s name one would go on, year after year, struggling with these transcendentally indifferent powers to do this impossible thing.