by Ron Hayes
As poets, our journey from the beginning to the end of a given work is unlike that of our colleagues who write in different genres. Where fiction writers must concern themselves with character arcs and plot holes, playwrights and screen writers grapple to create compelling characters and genuine dialogue, and essayists with universality and the import of veracity, poets must grapple with sound and form and image and intensity, among other things. In short, among us writers, the tools we use for evolving our stories are just plain different. Sure, commonalities run through each, but for my money, it’s the nuances of each genre’s composition that often sets noteworthy writing apart from less compelling writing. For poets, the nuances associated with evolving a work can be as dauntingly complex as they are so richly rewarding.
I don’t mean to slight other genres here, of course. As I stretch further and further into my fiction career, I know I still have much to learn about evolving a story, and I confess that I wouldn’t know the first thing about the evolution of a play, script, or essay. That said, the issues incumbent on evolving the “story” of a poem can be as minuscule as deciding whether a line should be six words or sixteen syllables, and as vast as electing to turn your high school scribblings into a novel told in verse. Often, the decision you make regarding the direction of the work’s evolution will open a cascade of new and different decisions to make. Here’s an example:
Years ago, very, very early in my career, I wrote a long, rambling screed of a poem in response to the situation in the Balkans. That sucker was five pages if it was a word, and I was positively beaming as I shared it with anyone and everyone. I was convinced of it’s impending masterpiece status. Then I gave it to an experienced, established poet whose opinion meant the world to me… and she crushed it. She unloaded on me with both barrels. And then she showed me, gently, that what I had written wasn’t a poem, but a rant. She showed me how the language I was using was indeed powerful, but relentless; the ideas impassioned, but unfocused. She told me to fix it.
In the end, it was this poem that was the first poem I ever published. The evolution of this particular work was a short one–What started as a flabby, overblown Op-Ed piece in verse evolved, through revision, into a clean, streamlined poem made truly powerful by understatement, reserve, honesty, and focus.
Does that mean evolution and revision are the same thing? No, but I would posit that they are kissing cousins. Think of it almost biologically: evolution is the physiological change that occurs in response to the external stimuli of a particular environment or set of circumstances. Revisions of a poem, a chapbook, or a book can be considered analogous to the external stimuli which drive biological changes in a species. Like the size and shape of a beak or bill, neck bone length, or the development of glandular poisons, certain poetic moves like employing meter and rhyme scheme, choosing long lines over short lines, alliteration, consonance, anaphora, stealing or creating verse forms, or eschewing meter and rhyme scheme can all be viewed as vehicles for evolving your work.
Most importantly, the common thread in the evolution of a poem, the evolution of a chapbook, the evolution of a book of poems, is revision and revisitation. Stuck with thirteen pages of poems that all hover around 10 to 20 lines? Maybe you need to evolve that bunch into a crown of sonnets. Can’t seem to shake your habit of writing “I/me/my” poems? Evolve them into third person monologues in verse addressing different character traits. Suddenly realized that too many of your poems are heavily narrative? Perhaps you’ve got an entirely new species trying to break out–consider writing short stories in addition to your poems. Or memoir. Or a play. The evolution of your work as a poet need not be earth shattering as all that, though. Maybe all you need is to streamline and focus or branch out and expand.
Bottom line? If you’re not doing any of this, there’s a good chance you’re stagnating, in which case it’s imperative that you start reading more, sharing more, submitting more, and experimenting more. As poets we have a world of topics, a multiverse of tools, and a inexhaustible supply of subject matter on which to write. The older we get the greater danger we face in becoming like the dinosaurs. If our work isn’t evolving over time, there’s a good chance we aren’t evolving as artists. And an artist who can’t evolve often goes unnoticed and forgotten. Fight extinction! Evolve!