• Generative Revision: Beyond the Zero-Sum Game

    Monica Youn

    Spring 2023

    I started off thinking about this essay’s topic as a way of dealing with writer’s block. I could be wrong, but in my subjective experience, poets complain about being blocked more than artists in any other discipline or genre. And one reason for that may be that, at least in the Western tradition, we have the least helpful model of artistic process. Apparently, we’re supposed to sit around passively until something called a Muse—which may or may not be bird-shaped—descends from on high and breathes into us some sort of gas called inspiration. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as regularly as one might hope. Hence, poets turn to substances, inappropriate romantic partners, and K-dramas.

    I watch my friends in other artistic disciplines, and rather than waste too much time beating themselves up about inspiration, they spend a higher percentage of it actually working. Claude Monet, after he painted the haystack, didn’t spend the next week agonizing over what will I paint next? He just painted the haystack again.

    As it turns out, poets also subject themselves to deeply unhelpful models of revision. The prevailing one is what I call the “zero-sum” model, in which the latest version of a poem substitutes absolutely for the old version, which is lost forever. The patron saint of this approach might be Elizabeth Bishop, whose nineteen extant versions of “One Art” bolster my theory. This is the first draft:

    And here, of course, is the iconic final version:

    The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
    so many things seem filled with the intent
    to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

    Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
    of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
    places, and names, and where it was you meant
    to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

    I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
    next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
    The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

    I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
    some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
    I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

    —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
    I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
    the art of losing’s not too hard to master
    though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

    It’s instructive to note what didn’t make the cut from the initial draft: the starting daily losses that seem to have triggered the poem (reading glasses, a favorite pen, keys); some, but not all, of the speaker’s remembered places (a peninsula, an island, a beach, a bay); and even the most emotionally resonant images of the original version—the blue eyes, the intelligent hands of Bishop’s lover and literary executor, Alice Methfessel. All these elements fall victim to the scythe of Bishop’s notoriously ruthless editorial eye and are discarded in the landfill of unwanted images. Surely there must be a kinder, more eco-friendly way . . .

    Luckily for us, there is another model of revision, which I call “generative revision,” or “non-zero-sum revision.” And because I prefer to belabor my metaphors past the point of all reason, I’ll discuss this generative, non-zero-sum approach using four different mathematical operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. In this alternative model, rather than replacing the original, the revision coexists with it, offering expansions, alternatives, subversions, and offspring that enrich the original work.

    My model of generative revision has its own patron saint: Emily Dickinson. Here is the final stanza of Dickinson’s great poem of unfulfilled love “I Cannot Live With You” (poem 640):

    So We must meet apart –
    You there – I – here –
    With just the Door ajar
    That Oceans are – and Prayer –
    And that White Sustenance –
    Despair –

    What you’ve just read is the official, authorized ending of this explosive, daring, heretical poem. But those of you who know Dickinson’s work know that the idea of an authoritative “final” version is something that her editors and publishers invented after her death. In her lifetime, Dickinson published different versions of her poems in letters to friends and relations, and in fascicles—little handmade books—which meant that multiple versions of a particular poem were simultaneously in circulation. She never designated one as authoritative.

    For this particular poem, I’ve included a facsimile of the fascicle:

    A former constitutional lawyer and the daughter of Korean immigrants, Monica Youn is an associate professor of English at UC Irvine. Her fourth book FROM FROM is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March 2023.

    Read More

    Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing