‘It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.’
Charles Bukowski, On Writing (ed. Abel Debritto, Canongate, 2016)
I’m so prone to re-working and over-editing my poems that about three years ago I started making sure I kept the first draft, and often that has turned out to be the best version.
I had a poem accepted in Brittle Star this week and they asked, as magazines often do, for an electronic copy. I trawled document after document until I finally found the poem, many versions of it in fact, but the one they’d accepted was the first version.
Although I remembered writing the poem (at a Poetry Business Writing Day) what really sticks in my mind is the redrafting I subjected that poem to, a process I think of now as smoothing the life out of it. After all, it was done with such care and good intent.
I’m writing this now as if I’m free of the habit. I’m not. I still spend hours tweaking a poem or worse, battering it into submission. The end result is invariably a bad poem, but when this madness is upon me I convince myself I’m working, and therefore I’m doing something good. This is the lie that Bukowski is talking about, the illusion that you are creating something that might stand as a poem because you’ve made it look like your idea of what a poem should be. I still fall prey to this sort of editing.
To be fair, I rarely write anything solid enough to be ‘let go at first sitting’, but it’s good to be reminded that there are probably some okay poems tucked away, it’s just that they’re the versions scribbled in notebooks, not the ones typed into a word document that have undergone more edits than you can shake a stick at.