If we accept that poems just don’t drop out of our heads – or the sky – fully formed *, then the art/act of drafting and editing is profoundly important to the poet who wants to get better at what they do. Poems require hard work and graft to make them sing on (and off) the page. Any poet serious about their craft knows this. Locating the most appropriate word, sentence, image, meter or syntax is elusive and I don’t know (m)any poets who don’t draft, draft and draft some more.
In the introduction to Anne Sexton’s The Complete Poems Maxine Kumin describes how the two women, long-time friends and supporters of each others’ work, would spend hours on the phone workshopping draft/emerging poems. If every word in a fiction manuscript has to earn its keep then this is doubly/triply/exponentially so for every word in a poem. Poets don’t do things by chance, or in a slapdash manner, and Sexton and Kumin’s critical dialogue bears testimony to the fact that most poems are born breech into the world.
Images of poem in draft-form are everywhere on the internet. I have seen Sexton manuscripts with her corrections and editorial notes to self, and she would regularly take a single poem through 30+ drafts. What does that look like today in a world where poets use PCs, laptops, tablets and multi-functional phones? Is drafting on the wane, or do we just have different resources at hand?
Personally I tend to start poems in ink on paper, but not always so. If I feel the urge to write, or something inspires me and I am beside my laptop, I can often type alongside my imagination. Doing that on paper slows you down. But the slowing is not a bad thing. Everything is so fast and readily available these days that a bit of reflection and time-taking seems healthy to me.
So the poem I have in-progress, the one inspired by the line from a Rachel Carson book – “full-bellied and silvery of scale” is currently sitting in a draft state on my laptop. It’s not ready to appear in the world. Yet. But I do think there’s something of substance in this early draft. How do I know that? Honestly, I’m not sure. The longer you write the more you hone a poet’s instinct for things that should/shouldn’t end up in the waste paper basket. The poem is about the coast here at Beadnell and I am wondering about some kind of cyclical, or tidal-mimicking form. It’s all a work-in-progress and as soon as I have a workable draft I will post it on here.
Sexton said, in a letter to a friend that she wanted to be an “important poet” not a “popular one” and her way through that ambition was to work very hard at what she did.
* There are exceptions to this rule but this is not the place to open another can of metaphorical worms.