Stephen Dobyns
Stanford Mohr Poet 2011
Commentary on
Chapter 9— Revision
Stephen Dobyns' book
Next Word, Better Word

Poetry Workshop
(English 192V)
Stanford University
Winter Quarter 2011

Peter Y. Chou

Next Word, Better Word
Craft of Writing Poetry (2011)

Preface: Stephen Dobyns, Stanford Mohr Poet (Winter 2011) told his Poetry Workshop class (English 192V) on February 16, 2010 that our homework assignment for next week is a 300-350 words essay on his handout— Chapter Nine— Revision (pp. 234-254) from his new book Next Word, Better Word to be published by Macmillan (April 26, 2011). In this chapter Dobyns tells about his writing process from composition to revision. He shares some of the tricks to make a better poem. Unlike the previous chapter on "Closure" where Dobyns cites nine complete poems, only one is given in this one— Kenneth Rosen's "Apple Tree". I enjoyed reading this chapter as Dobyns offers numerous ways for improving one's poem during the revision process.

The word "revise" is derived from Latin reviser— to look at again, and revidere— to see again. Thus, in revision, we look over again in order to correct or improve the poem or manuscript. Another meaning is "to make a new, amended, improved, or up-to-date version". We have seen revised drafts of T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land (1922) by Ezra Pound. Some claimed Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1776) was revised by Benjamin Franklin, as he was on the committee drafting this historical document. In this chapter, Dobyns relates his process of revision in poetry.

Composition & Revision
Shift betweeen composition and revision— shift from imaginative to analytic, intuitive to critical, expansive to controlled, freedom to restraint, license to judgment.

Tricks to Write Better Poems
Here are some pointers learned from this chapter on writing better poems—
Poetry writing is the process of mining one's unconsciousness, or our left brain mining right brain. Some use free writing or automatic writing [Yeats did this in A Vision (1925) with the help of his wife George] to tap one's unconscious. (Examples of Yeats, Whitman, Nadezhda Mandelstram, Rilke's "Panther", Berryman's Dream Songs, Ellen Bryant Voigt's Kyrie, Louise Gluck).
Use last line as first line to see if this is better.
Be aware of self-censorship & self-deception since the conscious mind has an agenda
    and constraints. Left-brain blocks information & ideas from right-brain.
Ask yourself— why I'm doing what I'm doing. Be truthful.
Purpose of the title— reader wants to know why was the poem written.
Change first person to third person may offer different perspectives and clarify the poem
    (Georges Simenon's revision process).
Poem as entertainment— small uninteresting wors saps the poem's energy.
Use enjambment, syntax, narrative, surprise, speed and energy of the line.
Tone of poem in the first line and counterpoint to hold a reader's attention.
Charles Simic's emphasis at beginning and end of line to create sense of control.
Energy to move a poem forward— tension and rest, enjambed and end-stopped line,
    obscurity and clarity, long and short sentence.
Keats' "First Looking into Chapman's Homer" use of details.
Kenneth Rosen, "Apple Tree", "No snake, no paradise, finis, gone, emptiness of Heaven".
Off-rhymes to create pattern and texture, why am I saying this, do I need to say it.
Arc of poem, beginning, middle, end, emotional center of poem.
Cut adjectives and replace with image.
Writer's loyalty is to the poem.

Poem works on emotional, intellectual, and physical level
Dobyns' description of a poem working on the physical, emotional, and intellectual levels reminds me of Plato's allegory of the charioteer in Phaedrus (246a-254e) that for the soul to be in harmony, we need to balance all three elements, physical, emotional, and intellectual in us. Only then, the charioteer can command the three steeds to enlightenment.

— Peter Y. Chou, February 23, 2011