It’s when you begin lie to yourself


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.

3 thoughts on “It’s when you begin lie to yourself

  1. I know what you mean about over-editing and I know I’m often guilty of that. Then again, sometimes a poem I’ve given up trying like mad to ‘get right’ after a dozen rewrites and as many rejections, I put away and forget about it, sometimes for years, until one day I get it out and it looks fresh again to me and it’s clear what it needs. Rather like trying to remember a name. If it just won’t come, you do something else and forget about trying to remember. THEN it pops into your head. Crazy!


    • Thanks for reading the post Robin. I’m not great at going back to old work, but I can understand completely how it seems ‘new’ when you do return to it. I rarely look back over anything I’ve written more than a year ago, and then I do this grudgingly!


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