Revise, Revise!

Life and the Memory of It, Brett Millier's 1993 biography of Elizabeth
Bishop, devotes some pages to the composition of Bishop's great villanelle,
"One Art," pages which are well worth consulting by any poet who finds
herself or himself pondering the mysteries of revision. "Bishop conceived
the poem as a villanelle from the start,- writes Millier. But her quotes
from Bishop's drafts (excerpted here; readers are referred to pages 508-13
of the biography) clearly show that what ended by being a powerfully
streamlined and eloquent poem had to shed successive stages of
looseness,chattiness, and general lack of focus.

The [first extant] draft is tentatively entitled "HOW TO LOSE THINGS," then
"THE GIFT OF LOSING THINGS," and finally "THE ART OF LOSING THINGS." (The
title "One Art" appears to have been arrived at very late in the process;
none of the other drafts is so titled.) It begins with the suggestion that
the way to acquire this art is to "begin by mislaying" several items -keys,
pens, glasses. Then she says:

-This is by way of introduction. I really
want to introduce mvself- I am such a fantastic lly good at losing things I
think everyone shd. profit by my experiences.

She then lists her qualifications: You may find it hard to believe,, but I
have actually lost/I mean lost, and forever, two whole houses." Among her
other losses are "a third house," "one peninsula and one island," "a small-sized town ... and
many smaller bits of geography or scenery,- "a splendid beach," -a
good-sized bay," "a good piece of one continent," "another continent" -
indeed, "the whole damned thingl" In the end, she writes:

One might think this would have prepared me
for losing one average-sized not espeeia!I~r exceptionally
beautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person
except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally
beautiful and the hands looked
intelligent) the fine hands
But it doesn't seem to have, at all...

(Millier, 508-9)

Along the way from this to the famous final version, which I am assuming is
too well known to need quoting here, Bishop distilled her litany of losses
into what Millier calls "a discreet and resonant form" (509). This process
took Bishop through seventeen drafts of prunings and condensations, of large
and small alterations. Here's just one example: looking recently at
Millier's account, which I had not read since it first appeared, I was
startled to see that in about the tenth draft Bishop wrote, of the "you" who
is dramatically lost near the end of the poem, "But, losing you (eyes of the
Azure Aster)," Eyes of the Azure Aster? "This awkward and self-consciously
poetic phrase hung in through several drafts [my italics], Millier tells us,
"until both its awkwardness and Elizabeth's need to generalize caused her to
discard it for the more discreet and melodious "gesture"" (510).

2-

But of course we do not really know that it was Bishop's "need to
generalize" that made her jettison the phrase. I myself would just as soon
use words like judgment, tact, taste, or even the stubborn instinct Lowell
was referring to when he described Bishop's patient revisions as the slow
movements of an inchworm. Yet Lowell's line in praise of his friend,
"Unerring muse who makes the casual perfect" (in "North Haven") seems
inaccurate, even perhaps condescending; it does not take account of the
dogged determination and persistence Bishop's revisions represent.
The key phrase in Millier's account above is the one I've italicized:
through several drafts. I would venture that almost any poem worth rereading
has been revised repeatedly. If the process works, the end product looks so
effortless, so transparent that we tend to assume its genesis was
spontaneous. Thus in "One Art" Bishop's famously low-key tone, like her wry
parentheses, stamp, the poem with her characteristic gone. Automatically?
Effortlessly? If we look at the diffuse and uncertain gropings Millier
provides, obviously not. It is time to remember a phrase that seems to have
gone out of fashion as applied to writing, though we admire it in athletes
or dancers: the art that conceals art. And the art that conceals art means
work. I'd amend Robert Frost's adjuration "Provide, providel" thus: Revise,
revise!

'3

One would think that technology would make the process of revision less
daunting. But instead, the word processor all too effortlessly turns out
documents that while they look flawless may in fact be first drafts riddled
with illiteracies. Moreover, subtracting almost all effort from the physical
act of writing makes it easy to be verbose, in poetry as well as in prose.
The poet needs patience, which the computer by its very tendency to speed
things up tends to erode.
Surely a fixed form like the villanelle helps guard against verbosity? To
some extent,, yes. A villanelle will always be nineteen lines long, as a
sonnet will be fourteen or a sestina thirty-nine. But it is not just the
number of lines that matters; it is how each line is packed with meaning,
how its syntax is combed through its syllables. Even though Bishop knew she
was writing a villanelle, even when she apparently had the general structure
of her argument in mind, she arrived at the apparently simple triumph of her
final version through a complex process of decision-making, sacrifice,
experiment, and change. There are other examples of masterful revision,
different from the the case of "One Art-in that Keats's earlier version of
-On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and Robert Frost's first version of
"Design" are both very good poems in their own right. But both these sonnets
pale if we compare them to the remarkable achievements their final versions
represent.
Am I saying that economy is everything in a poem? Alas, it's not that
simple. In my own experience, as well as in my years of teaching student
poets, revision reveals as many cases where a poem needs to say more as it
does cases where cutting is indicated. Poems can be dull or obscure simply
because they are unfinished or timid - and such lackluster poems include
plenty of dutiful sonnets or jingly villanelles. The poet Charles Martin
once wrote that other than Bishop's "One Art," most of the twentieth-century
American villanelles he knew might as well be carted off for landfill.
The discouraging news is that there are really no rules. Talent is
distributed unequally. Every poet sometimes feels she is writing well and
easily and sometimes feels that - as the future Greek Nobel laureate poet
George Seferis lamented in his diary - steichourgia [verse-making] is almost
a physical struggle.
Nevertheless, after more than thirty years of verse-making, I am convinced
that patient, scrupulous, sometimes surprising, ruthless, or apparently
trivial revisions do make a tremendous difference. Yeats said he could
almost hear the satisfying click of a completed poem. Here's an example of
such a snapping shut in one of my most anthologized pieces - a poem I wrote
around 1994 about my son's beginning to walk to school by himself. I had,,
without sufficient thought, given this poem the uninspiring title of
"Walking to School II," the Roman numeral referring to the fact that I'd
recently written

,5~'

another poem on this theme. Alice Quinn at The New Yorker rightly demurred
at my title and asked me to suggest another; but I have forgotten whether it
was she or I who (almost immediately) thought of "The Red Hat." I believe
this phrase from the poem's last line occurred to us both simultaneously. It
fitted; click. The poem was complete.
We may never know, but I hope that Elizabeth Bishop heard a much louder
click really a bang - when she finally got "One Art" just right so right
that it is hard to imagine it could ever have been any other way.