Daniel Brown takes a wrench to an overworked word
WHAT GOT ME into poetry was my inability to write a novel. More precisely, to write a novel quickly enough. At twenty or so, I was feeling like I had it in me to do something with words. Thinking it would be best to ease my way in, I started working on a short story—and ran into a problem. I’d write a page or so in the morning and then whittle it down to several sentences in the afternoon. Not many stories—nevermind novels—would ever get written at this rate. (Flaubert might have disagreed.) But this rate might yield a respectable number of poems. The rest has been, if not history, at least case history.
In the years since, I’ve often heard poets talk about the importance of “craft” in their practice. I used to nod readily in assent; craft—in my case, this whittling business—was certainly central to my way of working. But somewhere along the line it occurred to me that “craft” wasn’t quite the word for it.
When I think of craft, I think of, say, a cabinetmaker fashioning a table leg. With the help of a lathe, a rasp, and some sandpaper, he works toward a result that’s preconceived in its particulars. Where there’s a flaw in the piece-in-process—where it’s misshapen or uneven or abraded—he corrects it: a feat requiring skill, but a feat that any cabinetmaker could perform; not just because he’s skilled, but because the flaw he’s correcting is there for any cabinetmaker to see.
You might think that my “whittling” is akin to the cabinetmaker’s ministrations. But is it? Like the cabinetmaker, I see a flaw—but not in relation to a preconceived result. (Such a result doesn’t exist, or at least it shouldn’t when it comes to the coming to be of an artwork.) In fact, it’s not a flaw I see so much as—well, just something that bothers me. And maybe would bother just me. Another person might not see anything wrong at all.
To generalize from this experience, it seems to me that when revising a poem, the most important thing one brings to the worktable is less craft than irritability. A poet can be irritated by any of several sorts of things. I just mentioned one of them: what might be called a level bump (something unexceptionable by normal lights that nonetheless affronts the ear or tongue or intelligence). The irritant can also be an inauthenticity (something which affronts nothing, but which one can’t quite hear oneself saying), an opportunity (something which is perfectly fine, but which nevertheless whispers, “I could be so much more…”). But whatever the irritant, a poet exercises something other and deeper than craft when responding to it.
(I’m not saying there’s no such thing as craft in the process of revision. If that were the case, there would be no such thing as editors. I’m just saying there’s an aspect of revision to whose mysteriousness the term “craft” seems inadequate.)
When I first became aware of my irritability (which only arises in the act of writing, of course), I saw it, tyro that I was, as unusual. This was before I’d ever heard Donald Hall refer to his eighty drafts (and counting); before I’d learned that Yeats and Wilbur were happy if they averaged four lines a day; before I’d discovered that Hemingway stockpiled twenty seven endings to The Sun Also Rises en route to the one we read today; before I’d ever followed the gradual evolution, in a Beethoven sketchbook, of the melody of the slow movement of his Fifth Symphony, from patty-cake tune to noble and fluidly expansive Theme-for-the-Ages; before I saw footage of Matisse finically arranging a blizzard of paper cutouts, over the course of several weeks, into the blue nude whose simple-seeming grace melts us so. To call such processes the exercise of “craft” is to confuse the correction of a flaw with an activity driven by a more elusive sort of dissatisfaction.
Auden once said that the most promising young poets weren’t the ones who had things they wanted to say, but the ones who simply liked to play around with words. Frost, whose poetry Auden loved, might have raised a yellow flag, or at least an eyebrow (Frost, after all, called poetry “merely one more art of having something to say”). But it isn’t hard to imagine a poet who described his work as “play for mortal stakes” giving at least a qualified nod to Auden’s endorsement of wordplay. And yet I’d like to think neither Frost nor Auden would have dismissed a third alternative: that the most promising young poets are those who average four lines a day.
DANIEL BROWN's latest book is What More? (2015). His work has appeared in Poetry, The New Criterion, and Parnassus.