Saturday, May 01, 2010

Sixty Drafts? No Way!

(Hat tip to Frank Wilson.)

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.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

Terrific post here, Art. It takes some of the load off my shoulders. Not that I'm a poet, but your points about poetry could apply equally to prose writing.

Although I redraft and edit my work often, I refuse to go through it again and again and again, the way Mary Karr's comment suggests I might.

Perhapd you're right, it's hyperbole. Maybe she means it on a metaphysical level, sort of like the poem has been sitting inside the author unexpressed for eons and it takes a number of internal drafts before it hits the surface.

That sounds a bit new agey and I'm not sure I believe it myself but like you I'm ahhast at the number sixty.

When I go over my work too much, I begin to hate it. It begins to lose meaning for me. I have to leave it and come to it much later with fresh eyes.

I could not imagine redrafting sixty times except to wind up deleting every word, which I nearly did with a piece of prose I tried to convert into a poem, and which I wrote about in my blog some time ago.

It gave me little satisfaction, not the initial writing of the prose - that I enjoyed - but the re-working into a sort of poem, which is why I'm inlcined to agree with Jim Murdoch, pruned down prose is not really poetry. But in the long run who cares. It matters only if it seems to work, for some at least.

Finally I agree with your plea for tolerance and an acceptance of difference.

People have different styles and ways of writing. It's best to say things about how one works but not to advocate that way as the only way to work, otherwise as you suggest we risk the business of the 'formalist poet who is trying to shoehorn words into a form'. That's a wonderful expression of yours Art, and one that begs for a responding quote from julian Barnes when he writes about Flaubert in Flaubert's Parrot:

'Form isn’t an overcoat flung over the flesh of thought (that old comparison, old in Flaubert’s day); it’s the flesh of thought itself. You can no more imagine an Idea without a Form than a Form without an Idea. Everything in Art depends on execution: the story of a louse can be as beautiful as the story of Alexander.

'You must write according to your feelings, be sure those feelings are true, and let everything else go hang.

'When a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school. A line of prose must be as immutable as a line of poetry. If you happen to write well you are accused of lacking ideas...'

Maxim by Flaubert.

Thanks Art for a beautiful and thoughtful treatise on the art of the redraft.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, E, for your comments. I appreciate very much what you say about satisfaction and re-working. That's really important.

I definitely agree that all these thoughts apply to prose as well as to poetry. I think they also apply to essay writing, i.e. creative non-fiction.

The Julian Barnes quotes are very interesting. I take a lot from those. "When a line is good, it ceases to belong to any school." To me that's absolutely dead on target—and it handily blows those moral arguments against certain styles or types of writing out of the water.

Where I might differ slightly with Barnes—and he does seem to contradict himself slightly on this point—is when he says "If you happen yo write well you are accused of lacking ideas." While I think that's true, it's also true that good writing isn't de facto hollow and idealess. What Barnes says about execution is what I prefer to believe, when I am in stronger agreement with him: that any subject can be written about beautifully. Far better therefore to write beautifully about something, rather than about nothing. Perhaps that could be perceived as a moral judgment on my part—that something is better than nothing. Well, maybe, or not. All I can say is that that is the way I prefer to write; others are welcome to do their own thing.

2:21 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

In a recent post I talked about the first sentence of my first novel and how long I’d worked on it. I’ve estimated a whole twenty-four hours but no matter how long it was a ridiculous amount of time and yet when I compare the finished sentence it is exactly the same as the one I wrote off the top of my head all those years earlier.

If it takes someone sixty drafts then they’re either not very good or not very sure of their craft.

I’ve never really gone down the whole draft route, not with prose and certainly not with poetry. I draft a poem, play with it and then decide it’s finished or not. If not I save it and play with it a bit more sometime down the line until I do decide it’s finished. Mostly I find that if I leave something too long it never gets finished. I have about twenty or thirty poems in a folder on my desktop that have been lying around for months. When I find myself with a few spare minutes I’ll open up one I’ve not looked at for a while and have a look at it, maybe change a word or two and then save the file. Does that count as a draft? I don’t think so. I know it’s not finished. That’s just where I’ve decided to stop for the time being.

There is composing and there is improvising. Of course improvising is composing but it’s a different kind of composing. Can an improvisation once transcribed be improved? Of course but what can’t be improved is the flow. The more you fiddle with it the more you take away from it. Writing poetry has more in common with improvisation for me. Yes I tidy up the pieces, stick in the poetic equivalent to a time signature and bar lines, but the more I have to structure a piece the greater the danger that I’ll detract from the poetry.

This is how I interpret Julian Barnes. I find I have to do very little to my poems to formalise them, a syllable here or there. The form is there – just like the sculpture in the bock of wood – all I have to do is find it. It’s why I never begin with a form in mind and, to use Elisabeth’s expression, try and “shoehorn words into a form” that’s not the right form for them.

5:33 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, your story about your first sentence really makes that point very well. Thanks for repeating it here. I completely agree that if it takes someone sixty drafts they might not be very sure of themselves or their craft. That's when the borderline into OCD draws very close, I think.

I love your point about improvising and composing. I feel exactly the same way. Of course I do both in music, but I do agree that the flow of improvisation is very much how it feels to write a poem for me.

That, and listening to the silence. A lot of poems come in bursts for me, and the more I listen to the silence out of which they arise, the smoother they flow. That same silence is the silence out of which music also arises, for me.

I've made the analogy before that the different artforms I do are all branches of the same root creative force, and this one similarity between music and poetry, their origins in listening, is part of my evidence for the analogy.

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...


I'm pleased you didn't take offense at my comment over at Frank Wilson's. I feared it might come across as antagonistic.

I initially read Karr's statement about 60 revisions as descriptive of her process, rather than a proscriptive path for students to follow. This difference in how we read the same statement explains, in part perhaps, our differing responses.

And while it occurs to me her statement may have been only a figurative flourish, attempting to demonstrate that poetry requires more than sincerity and emotion, by not making this clear she opens herself up to criticism.

In matters of prose, I agree with Elisabeth in so much as she points out that to re-write a short story or - heaven forbid - a novel 60 times seems more than a little excessive. Yet, I also note that the history of the novel is replete with masterpieces penned by authors who compulsively and consistently revised. Perhaps not sixty times, but enough to demonstrate that, in the case of the novel at least, near-endless revision is not always a bad thing.

Wonderful post and discussion!


12:23 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Jonathon, thanks for your clarifications and other comments. I appreciate them greatly. I may have read a prescriptive tone into Ms. Karr's comments, but I did so in the context of that interview, during which it seemed to me she did have a rather prescriptive tone more than once.

I also rebel against any poet saying something so apparently absolute (whether prescriptive or self-descriptive) to a roomful of students, where it could do a lot more harm than good in bolstering the students' discovery of their own processes.

From what both you and Elizabeth say about revisions of novels, I can indeed think of certain novels that went through compulsive extensive revision, to their betterment. But I can also think of several novels that didn't. The point I would make there, though, is that there was something there from the first draft that was worth revising. Worth the work of revision.

I do still question that "compulsive" or "obsessive" reworking can ever be healthy for either the artist or the artwork, though. I do concede that there are cases where the finished work might have been worth it: but at what cost?

Would a dozen revisions more or less have made a difference to Finnegan's Wake? It's hard to say; Joyce got it to where he wanted it, and stopped. Would anyone else have noticed?

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

Hi Art,

Would anyone else have noticed?

What an interesting question you raise. Does the necessity, advisability or value of near-endless revision hinge on whether an audience or reader notices the effort?

It seems to me an audience seldom appreciates the effort or time expended by the artist. Like many other endeavors or tasks, note is only taken where there is a startling absence of effort.

Consequently, we are inundated with would-be writers, painters and musicians who see the finished product of others and, not recognizing the drive, obsession and talent behind it, think how easy it all looks.

If Karr succeeded only in demonstrating to the students the level of commitment poetry can demand, might we then not forgive her the excesses of both her answer and her revision?


1:27 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Well, but demonstrating that level of commitment to poetry is that anxiety and insecurity poets have about being taken seriously, made manifest. I would have preferred more humility in the face of the demands of the art, rather than another assertion, no matter how hyperbolic, that Poetry Is Hard Work.

As for the necessity of the audience knowing how hard the author worked: I don't think they care, nor should they be required to. Once the artwork is released out into the world, like any child it must survive on its own merits. Knowing how hard it was to make doesn't really tell the audience anything.

As you say, more notice is taken of prodigy, i.e. the apparent LACK of effort on the artist's part. Although it must be said, most child prodigies are skill-reproducing rather than creative. Almost none of the teen musical prodigies known, for example, compose; and fewer improvise. Those too are exceptions within the exceptions that do get noticed.

Does the necessity of near-endless revision hinge on whether or not the audience or reader notices the effort? No, it doesn't. But that's precisely the point where the artist's obsession may take the artwork beyond its most mature blossoming.

There's an old saying: It takes two people to paint a masterpiece. One to paint the painting, and the other to knock him out when it's done. In other words, so he doesn't keep obsessively revising it past its point of maximum power.

There have been arguments made that Joyce did exactly that with the Wake. I don't necessarily agree with those arguments, but they have been made. (Other, far stupider arguments have been made about the Wake. too, including some really medically ignorant ones that stipulate the Wake's incoherence was due to Joyce's syphilis. That's one of the dumber arguments I've ever heard about a work of literature; but there you go, it's been made a couple of times.)

The point is: Did anybody but Joyce care, or even notice, those last few revisions? Probably not. Would they have rendered a masterpiece into a piece of trash, somehow fatally weakened it? Probably not. Is it good that Joyce satisfied himself, finally, before pronouncing his work done? Yes, absolutely. Would anyone else be likely to care? Probably not.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

I'm enjoying this conversation!

You're right that knowing how hard a poet has worked tells the audience nothing. If, however, the audience in question contains aspiring poets than perhaps it is more useful.

Although there may be an element of "look how hard I work", I'm unconvinced that disabusing students of the notion that poetry is merely a combination of sincerity with angst is wrong to do.

I also agree that humility is preferable to boastfulness - only if, however, the humility is not a false one.

Before I descend into further nit-picking for the pleasure of debate, allow me to confess that I generally agree with your position. We differ, I think, only in the degree to which each is willing to cut Karr some slack.

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my posts and questions as well as for the information about Finnegan's Wake. I had no idea such arguments had been made.

All the best,

9:40 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

An audience of student poets is a specialized, dare one say professionalized, audience, not a general audience. So different standards certainly apply. I for one am not interested in only preaching to the choir, though, and I can't imagine most poets don't want to reach a general audience, more than just an audience of poetry's insiders. Although lots of poetry being written these days does seem to be aimed at the insider crowd, not a general audience.

I agree that disabusing students from the Romantic notion that poetry is easy is no bad thing. But isn't there a middle ground? In which hard work is shown to be necessary, but in which OCD isn't?

I do agree that's it's a matter of degree; a nagging question of how much is too much. I've seen a lot of OCD among poets and other art-makers, and I'm not convinced that the OCD is either helpful or beneficial to the art, not to mention the artists.

I think a lot of this can play into those archetypes and stereotypes of the Dissolute Artist or Mad Poet. People almost expect you to be crazy, or a drunk, or have psychological problems. I've never been convinced that good art MUST come out of bad psychology. I wonder often if artists, especially in some cases, might have done even better work, had they not been held back by their demons.

And sixty drafts, even if it's hyperbole, tends to suggest that one must give into one's demons, in order to be an artist. I don't think one must. Let's face it: for a lot of those student poets in those classrooms of that specialized insider poetry audience, sixty drafts encourages a tendency towards OCD, not towards each poet finding their own footing and their own process. The underlying message is: Yeah, you DO have to be crazy to be a poet.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Jonathan said...

Well said!

I hadn't considered the ways Karr's statement played into the stereotypes you mention. Keeping them in mind, her claim to sixty drafts begins to look less like a description of process or even a rhetorical flourish in service of a larger point about effort. Self-mythologizing annoys me even more than does cloying false humility.

Colour me convinced.


12:11 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jonathon, thanks. At this point I'm certainly willing to admit that I might have it all wrong. Maybe Ms. Karr really does use sixty drafts; maybe that genuinely is her process. I don't really know.

The larger point about effort was one of my initial objections, as you know; my objection there is really about keeping it in proportion. You know, minimum effort for maximum gain. Efficient use of one's tools. Or at least that's my worldview, my own process. I can't really judge sixty drafts as anything other than alien to my worldview, I suppose.

Nonetheless, I think it's problematic precisely because it does play into those stereotypes. Or maybe it just took me this long to get at the root of my objections. Those stereotypes and archetypes are something I've been thinking about for a long time, and I think they're pretty pernicious. If only because they're usually unquestioned.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Pat said...

I'm with Jim and does not take sixty drafts to hone a good poem...unless you happen to be obsessive/compulsive. If so, it could easily take you a hundred and sixty drafts, maybe more...speaking as someone who loves to write, try to hone, write well, I think her statement is, quite frankly, absurd.

I agree with her statement: "My idea of art is, you write something that makes people feel so strongly that they get some conviction about who they want to be or what they want to do. It's morally useful not in a political way, but it makes your heart bigger; it's emotionally and spiritually empowering."

But disagree it takes 60 drafts to do it. As our old pal, Ron, used to say, Dragon..."if it doesn't work after several drafts, take it to the curb, save a few lines and move on". : )


11:49 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Pat. Yeah, I agree with that statement about what poetry should do, too. And I still can't see how sixty drafts would help. I completely agree with Ron on that one.

2:01 AM  

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