Revision is a form of futurity; it believes that a more particular language will emerge.
In my formative undergraduate studies, it was instilled in me that a poem cannot be good or bad, only finished or unfinished. The workshop’s task was to clarify and complicate the poem for the poet. Afterwards, the poet’s ostensible task was to finish it.
An unfinished poem almost always suffered from an underdeveloped speaker.
We treated the speaker like a character in a story: what are the speaker’s contexts? Their motivations? How are they posed in the poem’s scenes? What poetic tools do they use to create patterns of sensation, feeling, and thought? How does the speaker break those patterns? What is the emotional imperative behind their formal decisions? What aren’t they saying?
In working through these questions, we considered how the speaker moves from the poem’s initial subject to its innermost subject—from transcription to transformation, from the actual to the true (PDF). A poem in which a speaker thumbs a rotten plum becomes, maybe, a poem about grief. But a poem that begins already in grief—that poem must either deepen its grief or transform grief itself.
Given the predilection to begin at the wound, most workshop conversations circled the latter type of poem, which is harder in some ways to talk about. Poems that lead with what can pass as, but is not, a transformed subject can evade their own needs, just like poems covered up by simile’s gloss. It’s a convenient finish, but the poem remains unfinished.
To be rescued, I think, means to be changed.
I had this sense that, in working through the speaker’s relationship to the poem’s innermost subject, we were really offering a way for the poet to consider their relationship to the speaker.
It is true that the speaker is not the poet. But the poet has invented the speaker to accompany them into the poem’s subject, into its risk, its transformational errand.
Maybe the responsibility of this companionship is what is meant by, what is at stake?
Publication, too, imagines a future; it believes in companionship, through readers or neighboring pieces, that will recognize the poem’s particularity and deepen it.
As a queue reader, I enter between these two futures—between private and the public, the not-yet-done and done. To which future do I offer my fidelity?
When I forward a poem from the submission queue for further editorial consideration, I rarely want that poem published.
Yet—I don’t want it published yet; I want the poem revised. By the time I feel confident enough about a poem to move it forward and advocate for it in an editorial meeting, I’ve spent many hours with it, across dozens of readings. Its speaker has become my own companion, and I want to protect their questions and utterances from what can often be, though is not always, publication’s affirming gleam, its risk of finality.
Because I believe fully in the poem, I want it to be bettered. Is this care, or control?
I sometimes dream of an editorial ethos that seeks to accept every submission for publication, but that also insists each piece undergo collaborative revisions. Collaboration is, I think, the antithesis of control.
When I sense that a poem is not yet finished—that the speaker is underdeveloped, that a pattern is under- or overwrought, that the poem’s innermost subject is incipient but not yet present—I want not to reject it but to reach out, to work with the poet on the ways their work could reach its transformational capacity.
I’ve been lucky to receive and to give this kind of editorial care in small ways before, but mostly it seems not a dream but a delusion, entirely impractical given the conditions of capitalism, given the realities of a publication calendar, of burnout, of people working multiple jobs. A delusion, too, that projects onto others the pressure I feel for every poem to fulfill a specific potential.
Have I tethered myself to the wrong future?
In her guest room again, I grieve to my friend Joy about a breakup. I had failed once again to love in the way that was needed, too focused on amending past failures to notice love in the present leaving the room.
Perfection, Joy suggested, is a punishment. How many times will I learn this lesson?
My friend Susannah Lodge-Rigal, who I met alongside Joy in workshop, believes that a poem has succeeded when it’s made itself companionable.
In trying to achieve some ideal integrity, Joy said, you’re missing out on relationality, on creating the companionship you really want.
It’s possible that I will finish my manuscript someday. Published or not, I could finally let myself write the poems my life requires while my life still requires them. But it’s also possible that I will instead stake myself to a standard so severe that it precludes completion.
My working epigraph for the book I may never finish, from Jorie Graham: How far is true?
And then I recall the real lesson of those early workshops: the act of reading will always change my life more than the act of writing does. Maybe I feel severed from one kind of future because I keep forgetting that change can’t really happen without others—companionship, too, is a speaker’s innermost risk.
Noah Baldino is a writer and editor from Illinois. Their poems have appeared in Poem-a-Day, Jewish Currents, New England Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Knox College Creative Writing Program and of the Purdue University MFA, Noah has also received support from The Poetry Foundation, The University of Arizona Poetry Center,...