The Afterlives of a Poem, or What Happens to Your Poem When You’re Done Writing It

I woke up early this morning thinking about what happens to a poem after you stop working on it, and there are four possible afterlives for a poem.

But before I get there, let’s look at why we stop working on a poem.

One reason is that we think the poem is done. We’ve worked hard at it, had fun with it, and had a good conversation with it, and now there is nothing left to work on or converse with and the only fun left in this poem is reading it over and over again and feeling good.

Another reason we stop working on a poem is because we realize the poem is going nowhere. Oh, you went into the poem with good intentions, but along the way, you and the poem both realized it just wasn’t going to work out or there was too much awkwardness with it, and you couldn’t overcome all the obstacles. It’s kinda like going on a first date, and when you meet the other person, your fly is down, and then an hour after you eat, you realize you’ve had a piece of spinach in your teeth for the last hour, and you also told a joke that you thought was funny, but it turned out to be offensive. At this point, you realize the date is not salvageable, and you part ways.

A third reason for stopping work on a poem is that you no longer know what to do with the poem or the poem is being stubborn and not helping you help it. This type of poem can actually be a worthwhile poem. It’s doing good things, it sounds well, it has meanings you understand and that are just beyond you, and it has good energies. It’s not a bad poem. It’s fine. You could share it with people and they would like it and a journal might even publish it. But still it seems to be lacking something, but you don’t know what it is. This type of poem is like the date where you have a good time filled with good conversations and laughs and that lasts for hours and late into the night, but it feels like it was an only hour, and you walk her home, but she doesn’t give you a good night kiss. “What?” you ask yourself. “I thought everything was going well. What happened?” And so you walk away having had a good time, but you are confused. Maybe there will be some clarity tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow you will get a kiss. But for now, it’s time to be alone.

A fourth reason for stopping work on a poem is that you have come to an impasse. In this situation, you know what is wrong with the poem and you know it can better, but you just can’t figure out how to make it better at the moment. You know you will, but you just can’t figure it out right now. This is the poem you set aside on purpose and let your unconscious work on it for the next few days or weeks. This is the date with whom you play hard to get. You let the other person do the work. “Maybe I’ll kiss you at some later date . . . if you’re lucky.”

So however it has come to be, you stop working on a poem. You always stop working on poem, unless you are working on it in an unconscious manner. But there always comes a point when you put down you pencil or pen or walk away from the typewriter or keyboard. When this occurs, there are four afterlives or possibilities for the poem between now and the next time you look at.

The first afterlife or possibility is that at some future time you will return to the poem and it will be even stronger than you remember it. The sounds will be cleaner and underscore meanings and emotional content, the imagery will be crisper, the leaps will seem downright natural and universal, and it will be clear and sound and feel true.

Another afterlife is that the poem doesn’t change at all. It’s exactly the same as you left it and remembered it. It’s done nothing.

A third possibility is that any problems you had with the poem have somehow sorted themselves out, or at least some of them. This is a magical moment. And you feel delighted and relieved. This poem might still need a little work, but the big work has taken care of itself.

I’m not sure how those three afterlife possibilities occur, but they do.

The Afterlife of a PoemThe fourth afterlife is the one that woke me up, and I think I know the causes of this afterlife possibility. The fourth possibility for the poem after you stop working on it and then return to it sometime later is that the poem gets worse. We’ve all experienced this. We all know this feeling. In fact, from what I’ve heard from most people is the poem being worse is the typical afterlife result of a poem. But why does the poem get worse, especially if when we left the poem we thought that it was a strong poem. Especially after we had such a good time with it and we got a kiss good night.

Here is what I think happens. When we are in the act of writing a poem, we are gods that know everything. We know what each word means or how we want it to mean, we know how each sound is contributing or how we want it to contribute, and we know what the images are doing or how we want the images to perform. In fact, there are certain words, sounds, and images that act as pillars for the poem. These pillars hold up the poem. (Yes, all the words, sounds, and images are pillars holding up the poems, but some bear more weight than others.) These pillars are initially filled with personal meanings and associations and/or immediate associations. The pillars also contain immediate energies that arise from a poem in its first drafts. While we are in the first composition of the poem, we can create all sorts of magic to make those pillars stand tall and firm. If they wobble a little bit, we just wiggle our fingers at them and cast the magical spell “Stay.” And the poem stays. What we are doing here is imposing on the poem. We are hovering over the poem and controlling it. When we walk away it will, of course, collapse.

But this collapse doesn’t have to happen. Before you leave the poem, you need to stand outside of it and really talk to the poem. You need to ask a word, image, sound, or rhythm something like, “I know that if I say ‘bison’ I will think of the animal and meat and some of those cave paintings in France, and those all have special meanings for me, but will the reader be able to experience those things? Will my unique experiences confuse the poem? Are the associations to ‘bison’ mine own or are they more universally shared? Will anyone else think of meat or paintings or will they just think of the animal? or might they even think of other things like a baseball team?” In addition, some of the associations that you have during the writing of the poem you might forget when you return to the poem after some time has passed, and that is why the poem becomes worse. You have become the reader who is not intimate with the meanings that only you knew at the poem’s composition. The poem is not speaking beyond you.

This means before you leave the poem, you have to make sure those pillars are solid and coated in stainless steel. They have to endure. And the pillars also have to be real. They can’t just exist inside of you or in some “imaginary gardens.”

Charles OlsonAnother reason a poem gets worse after you leave it is that it loses energy. A poem in its early stage has lots and lots of energy. It’s a “high-energy construct,” as Charles Olson called it. There’s excitement in writing the poem, and sometimes the writing-excitement energy can be confused with the actual energy of the poem. If the actual poem doesn’t have much energy and the energy you are experiencing is just because of the excitement of writing it, then after you stop writing and then return to the poem later, there will be less energy than you expected and the poem will seem worse.

But there’s also an energy discharge, and this one is harder to explain, but I’ll call it original energy for now, but I’ll provide more subtle definitions below. A poem always radiates energy. The stronger the poem, the more energy it radiates it and the more sparks it can provide in peoples’ lives. The problem is how to contain that original energy of the poem. Each poem starts off in a high-energy field. (Well, many do.) The poem screams to be written. It’s knocking on the doors to your brain and heart and soul, and saying, “Let’s write. I’ve something new to add to the universe that will change people.” or “Let’s write. I’ve something cool to say.” That energy and the energy that results when you write the poem are the energies that are hard to sustain. The energy slowly leaks out. This is why a poem can also seem worse after stopping work on it and returning to it later. These are the hardest energies to sustain during revision.

Allen GinsbergIn fact, in my experiences, revision tends to revise away that original energy, especially too much revision. I think this is why Allen Ginsberg says to “revise lightly.” I like that advice, but for me, it’s slightly different. For me it is “revise quickly.”

I used to work on poems for days or weeks and sometimes years. I used to revise and revise and revise. In my revisions, though, by the end, the final poem never seemed that great. Oh sure, there were all these technical pyrotechnics, but the poem was no better for it. The poem just showed that I knew some poetic techniques and that I had learned something about poetry. The technique had become the poem. The poem was without energy or with little. The energy that was there was me saying I wrote this poem and from me reading it. But this is not the point.

I’ve found that once I’ve stopped working on a poem, it became really hard to come back to it because I couldn’t remember the original energies. “Remember” might not be the best word nor “original.” Maybe it is that I could not feel the the impetus energy. I can’t feel the impetus energy. Impetus energy being the energy that caused the poem. Original energy being the energy of the poem as it is being written.

So what I’ve learned to do is to revise quickly. I think all my years of enduring revisions have prepared me for this. But now I need to revise quickly. I need to contain that impetus energy before it goes away. I need to condense days, weeks, or years of revisions into one moment. I need to be able to quickly determine if a word, image, or sound is going to go beyond my personal associations and be relevant to others. I need to make the language crisp now. I need to make sure all the harmonies are tight now. I need to make sure the rhythms rise and fall in the best spots now. I need to contain all this energy now so it will endure, because if I come back to it later that impetus energy will be gone. There will still be original energies and they will radiate, but the impetus creative energy will be gone.

Quantum Foam

Quantum Foam

It’s kind of like the Big Bang. I can’t see the Big Bang, but I know everything that happened shortly after. I know the quantum foam that appeared at 10-72 seconds after the Big Band and the inflation that occurred at 10-41 seconds after the Big Bang, but I can’t see the Big Bang anymore. It’s gone. I can feel original energies, but I can’t feel the impetus energies.

Of course, this revision technique is unique to me. I know others who can revise for lengthy periods of time and still maintain energy in the poem. But I do think energy leakage is the reason for a poem feeling worse after you come back to it some time later.

Still my revise quickly method is applicable to everyone, or at least worth consideration. When you revise, be aware of what the poem is doing. That is, is it doing something immediate and personal and something you hope it to do or is it doing something enduring and universal? If it is the former, don’t leave the poem until it is doing the latter. Make sure you have strong pillars. Analyze your energies. Are the poem’s energies coming from the excitement of writing or are they the genuine energies from the poem? If the former, don’t leave the poem until the energies are the latter. Always try to revise to keep impetus and original energies. Do not revise away impetus and original energies.//

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