- Revision as Creation: The Growth of a PoemVol. 29, No. 9, June 1967
My thesis is that revision is creation and that it is a far more exciting and revelatory process than the mere manipulating of word and idea, though at its lowest level it is, of course, also that. My thesis is that we learn form as we learn understanding; my thesis is that metaphor ("to see the world in a grain of sand") is the great teacher of the poet as he wrestles to discover what he really means, just as it is the point for the reader where intellect and emotion fuse and he meets the poem as he might meet a person with whom he is to fall in love at first sight. But this impact, the impact of a true poem, must have been preceded by a long adventure on the part of its creator: for him what is the value of the finished work compared to what he has found out on the journey of its making?
I understand very well why Valéry simply could not bear to "finish" a poem; what interested him was revising it—indefinitely—because he was discovering so much on the way; because he felt that a moment of inspiration could be, in fact, mined forever. It was the same attitude that Yeats expressed in four lines:
The friends that have it I do wrongWhenever I remake a songShould know what issue is at stake:It is myself that I remake.
For me a true poem is on the way when I begin to be haunted, when it seems as if I were being asked an inescapable question by an angel with whom I must wrestle to get at the answer. We all experience at times the pressure of the unresolved crude matter that we need to set outside ourselves and to examine; the poet's way of doing it is to begin to make some notes, to ease the tension by writing something down on a pad and looking at it. At this point it is often not at all clear what the poem is really about. At this point what goes down on the page may be quite incoherent, because whatever has been set in motion is complex … and because it has probably come out of a strong emotion, but one that is, for one reason or another, troubling. One thing is sure: somewhere among the jottings there will be an image, because it is the nature of poetry to turn the abstract into the concrete. Very possibly there are several images and I begin to know what the poem is telling me as I probe them, turn them over like pebbles picked up on a beach, hold them in my hands, feel their substance [End Page 169] and weight, dream them alive in my mind. "Here we are at a place," says Gaston Bachelard1 who has taught us so much about the psychology of image-making, "where ideas dream and where images meditate."
The image must be complex enough to carry the weight of complex feeling; it must be absolutely exact. This is where the beginner often bogs down; he is too easily satisfied with the flotsam and jetsam the wave of what might be called inspiration has brought him. He is unwilling to analyze, to probe, to push the limits on what seems to him marvelous, unexpected, and a gift from the gods. Beginners are narcissistic and conservative; it takes time to learn to be daring and radical enough to break down again and again, and by doing so to explore the most elusive realities of experience in the most concrete and exact possible terms.
It has happened to me at least once that the image preceded the poem by years. I tucked it away for the moment when it would meet the experience worthy of it for intensity and complexity. Such an image was suggested to me by that same Bachelard: "Salt dissolves and crystallizes; it is a Janus material. To dream salt intimately is to penetrate into the most secret habitation of one's own substance...