Sixty Drafts? No Way!
Poet Mary Karr, speaking to students: "Every poem probably has sixty drafts behind it."
When I hear a comment like that, especially coming from A Poet, I think:
Wow. That's one of the most egregious, if not fatuous, remarks about poetry that I've ever heard. I am incredulous. I boggle.
I must be doing something wrong, by Ms. Karr's lights, or I must not be writing Poetry. I think the most number of drafts I've ever done on any given poem is five or six. (Most poems usually only get two or three.) If the poem doesn't come out right by then, I abandon it and begin again from scratch. If the poem doesn't work after that amount of rewrite, you're beating a dead horse. I do not spend endless hours of effort on rewrites when I could be spending that same effort on making a new poem, even if I have to make several tries from scratch at the same poem.
Sixty drafts? The mind utterly boggles.
While I understand that some writers think and work in the Way of the Endless Rewrite, I don't. I've more than once been criticized by some Poet or other for not doing that much work on my poems—and yet they couldn't say the poems were therefore inherently bad.
In fact, I remember one occasion when a Poet seemed baffled that she really liked a poem of mine, she thought it was good, and yet she could not take in that it was only a second draft. I had to have sweated blood on it, right? Well, no, not by her lights. She might work on a poem through several drafts, and I only two or three, and she herself said that the poems that resulted were of comparable quality. She was unable to damn the finished poem on the grounds of its method, even though her mind could not encompass the method. (I'll return to this theme below.)
On another occasion, another Poet once condemned a poem of mine as a non-poem. I was able to get him to admit, in the end, that his objection to the poem was purely on moral grounds—that it didn't look like he thought a Poem ought to look—and he had no criticism of the content of the poem itself. Ultimately, he backed down. Nonetheless, he attitude is typical of many neo-formalist poets, which he numbered himself among. (One might add the possibly relevant biographical note that he is a practicing MD.)
It seems to me that the reactions of these two different poets on these two different occasions have some striking parallels. Both raised objections against texts that, in the end, they perceived as not having been worked on hard enough.
Rewrite after rewrite after rewrite after rewrite is a completely alien way of working, for me. I literally cannot imagine doing sixty drafts of a poem. I cannot imagine doing endless rewrites without the process itself literally killing every good thing in the poem, including the impulse that originally caused me to want to write it. The spontaneity and freshness and surprise and life will all be killed, each phrase will become so overly-familiar that all the life will be sucked out of it merely by repetition. You can't bring a poem back to life, after killing it with rewrites: there are no zombie-poems (although one can make a case for there being some living-dead poets, in certain instances). I'd rather shoot the poem and put it out of its misery than subject it to such pointless and endlessly painful surgery.
If I can't get it in four or five drafts, sixty drafts won't make any difference: one reaches a point of diminishing returns. Far better to start over, because—in my case at least—endless rewrites will not magically repair what a few drafts cannot. It's magical thinking—or worse. The definition of insanity is to keep repeating the same behavior again and again, each time hoping for a different outcome than that which the previous hundred repetitions provided. In the case of obsessive rewriting, I'd want to see some evidence that the last twenty drafts made any noticeable improvements to the poem. I remain skeptical until presented with such.
Let me step back from my indignation and disbelief at Ms. Karr's remarks for a moment, and look at the problem point by point. In other words, a more measured response rather than my initial "You've got to be kidding!" response. So here again is Ms. Karr's statement:
"Every poem probably has sixty drafts behind it."
First, this is hyperbole, an exaggeration: No one sane actually writes sixty drafts. I'll give you twenty drafts, but sixty strikes one as being more about one's personal obsessive-compulsive disorder than about writing poems. (I'll get to speaking about OCD below.) This hyperbole seems to be rooted in the Puritan work ethic. Poets constantly suffer from an insecurity, inherited perhaps from Romantic stereotypes about tubercular Writers wasting away in starving garrets, that other members of the literary clan won't respect them if they don't appear to be working hard enough at their "craft and sullen art." Certainly every poet wants to appear to the non-poet as hard-working, as if they must work hard, to achieve what they've achieved. Poetry is, after all, specialized language, intensified and heightened speech, with more meaning packed into a few words, compared to every other literary artform. Yet poetry is a verbal artform, with no physical component to it, so one might well understand how a poet might feel like a slacker when standing next to a construction worker: although both are building things, only one makes tangible things that one might actually trip over. I myself would argue that poetry at its best is a tangible thing one can trip over, and have one's life changed thereby—but it's easy to see how some poets might be insecure about their art's lack of apparently physical results, especially in a consumer economy wherein the dominant measure of intrinsic value is monetary and physical utility.
Second, this comment (once again) seems expressive of that contemporary emphasis on (or bias towards) technique and craft over every other element of poetry-writing. This is an emphasis on craft that has come to increasingly dominate poetry ever since teaching poetry has been taken over by academic and workshop teaching: after all, you cannot teach inspiration, you can only teach craft. In truth, one of the worst problems with the MFA or workshop-trained poet is that he or she has tons of training in craft, but really has little or nothing to say. So the emphasis on craft is a parallel hyperbole, based again in poets' insecurities about not looking like they're working hard enough to get what they achieve. We can over-emphasize craft all we wish, but if we really have nothing worthwhile to say, the poem does not have any life of its own. (Critical theory exists to explain or justify the lack of actual content: the more theory a poet talks about, typically the less they have to say. There are one or two rare exceptions.)
Third, the only kind of poet who might do sixty drafts is a formalist poet who is trying to shoehorn words into a form. I agree with Frank Wilson, who says that's verse composition, which is not the same thing at all as poetry. There is something that smacks of obsessive-compulsive disorder in much formalist (including neo-formalist) poetry: an emphasis on the precision of form, which again may conceal a lack of having anything to say. As if the manner of construction itself was of intrinsic merit: the means justifying the ends.
Fourth, I find it interesting when a Poet (such as the first one I mentioned above) remarks that she revises obsessively, or doesn't believe in inspiration: that speaks directly to that clash of worldviews about the creative process. This is a fundamental issue of worldviews in collision, because any Poet declaring an absolute position on the creative process is immediately going to come into conflict with a poet who uses a radically different creative process—and yet, as I described above, cannot dismiss out of hand those poems of quality produced by an "alien" creative process.
It should be obvious by now that each of these points are interrelated.
The bottom line here is really very simple: No matter what working method you use to get there, is the end result, the finished poem, any good? I don't actually care how one achieves a good poem—as the saying goes, "All roads lead to Rome"—just don't try to tell students that your method is the better method, or the only method.
In the case of the two poets mentioned above—the one who wrote lots of drafts and the neo-formalist who objected to my textual experimentation—it's not at all clear to either them or to me that their methods yielded better poems than my own, relatively slapdash method. Since these occasions all happened within workshop settings, there were other respondents present who agreed that the quality of the finished poems were all about the same, no matter the method used. I'm okay with that. Is Ms. Karr? I wonder. Certainly that second poet, the avowed neo-formalist, was not.
Perhaps this tangle can only be resolved by viewing it as a case of creative laissez faire: Don't dismiss my creative process and I won't dismiss yours. I'd actually be okay with that.
Yet many neo-formalist poets seem to present an evangelical attitude, as if somehow they could save the world by convincing every other poet to share their values. It does seem to irritate some poets, on basically moral grounds, that I don't work as hard as they do, that I don't rewrite obsessively, and that I don't follow their creative process. I must be doing something wrong—yet they can't say anything bad about the results.
At the root of the moral objection lies, I believe, an assumption on the parts of such poets—beyond that they can't seem to comprehend that their working method isn't the only one available, and may not even the be best available—that their working method is the Best Method, the One True Way. The psychology of poetic neo-formalism is very similar to that of political neo-conservatism: equally judgmental, equally intolerant of diversity.
I certainly have been called a poetic slacker, or worse, over the years. I don't mind that at all. The simple truth is, as impossible as it seems for some to believe, that I really don't work that hard at poetry—and have never wanted to. It's not my primary artform; it never has been. I certainly enjoy making poems, yet my self-esteem would just fine if I never wrote another poem. I certainly give my best to every poem that I attempt, just as I do with every piece of art or music that I attempt. I take my creative work very seriously, and at the same time I don't take myself seriously. I give each piece my all, in its moments of being worked upon; and then when it's done, I move on. Two words that are essential aspects of my creative process are D-O-N-E and N-E-X-T.
So, perhaps this can only be resolved as a case of live and let live—egregious comments about the creative process notwithstanding. I daresay that I would hate to be in a poetry seminar taught by Ms. Karr, because her expectations of endless rewrites would drive me crazy, and probably prevent me from actually finishing any given poem, or being allowed to move on to the next. I can conceive of no worse hell than being forced to follow a creative process so alien to one's own, natural process.
The point here is that there are many different ways of working, even within similar creative processes. We may have fundamentally different working methods. I'm fine with that. I'm not okay when the disbelieving try to impose their values, or their working methods, on others. Hence this rebuke to Mary Karr. Her remarks put me very much in mind of that other Poet I mentioned above, who was similarly unable to see past difference. I cannot agree with them, in any way, on any level.
This issue isn't as fresh or knee-jerk as it might seem. I've always felt this way. I wrote about it two years ago, in another essay titled The Endless Edit, with a followup regarding craft and intuition. Some things do remain consistent; some opinions, once thought about and formed, tend to linger.