I find that I do not usually do as much revision in my poetry as in my prose. Part of this is that by definition, even my longest poems are not nearly as long as my prose; the fewer words, the less that can go wrong. But more likely, I think, it is that poems tend to have what Edgar Allan Poe called “unity of effect, ” the idea that all the elements of a poem or short story are working toward the precise effect that you want to have on the reader. He believed that longer works made this sort of unity of effect impossible because you would put the book down. Short forms can be read in a single sitting, so you can capture and captivate your reader better with them. So along with that, I think of what the poet Nancy Willard said when I went to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference many years ago: “Writing is like baking bread. You can smell when it’s done.”
I was thinking about this when I came across another old poem, this one a meditation on how I revised yet another poem, Notes from the Coin Laundry, which was about the little laundromat I went to when I lived in Japan. Some sparrows had nested in the awning above the entry and they would often fly in circles for their own amusement and mine. Circles, cycles, the pull of time down the ages, physical circles mimicking mental circles… I find myself fascinated to see the connections my mind comes up with, especially when I ask myself questions rather than trying to give answers.
A Question of Revision
Is the point the spinning laundry
Or the wheeling sparrows or the sun
Caught in my blue eye just
As it ends its arching ascent—
Is it? Are these perfect circles
In their orbits the center of the poem?
Is the poem a golden disc, a calendar
Molded by men who cut out beating
Hearts to offer gods? What day is it?
What year is it? And how high
Must I climb to make the sacrifice?
Which words will stand solid under
My feet to take me upward?
Somehow I must cut the heart out
Of this beating poem, the laundry
And the sparrows, circling the center.
Somehow I must enter the spin and offer
You, O gentle reader, the sun.
Spilecki, Susan. “A Question of Revision.” Byline Nov 1997: 19.