I have a file on my computer titled “abandoned drafts” where poems go to die. I don’t look in there all to often, but today I did, and was shocked to see I have 84 poems in my abandoned drafts. 84?! And these are the ones that made it out of my notebook (my first drafts are hand-written) and to the computer–not all of them make it to Word.
Once I heard that Sharon Olds does not revise any of her poems. At the time I thought “Liar!” but now I get what she means. I rarely revise (though I’m no Sharon Olds!) because either a poem works or it does not. Either it has that something that is worth going with, or it is merely a writing exercise.
The poems that don’t make it–the writing exercises–are still worthwhile. I can look through these abandoned drafts and sometimes see an idea, image, or turn of phrase that I explore better in a later poem. It’s good to allow oneself to make mistakes, experiment, see what sticks.
That said, once a poem is drafted in my notebook, typed up on my computer, then it typically is mostly done. Now and then I’ll go through and make edits here and there, or reread and have a revelation as to how that poem should be, but rarely do I revise like I did when I was in my MFA program, writing and rewriting endings (once, Louise Gluck told me the ending of my poem was “flaccid” and had me rewrite the ending a dozen different ways until I wrote the correct ending).
I’ve found that if a poem isn’t clicking together after the first couple drafts that happen in the notebook, then usually it just isn’t a fully formed thought — to save the idea for a later day. I could rework it and work it and work it to make it into a passable poem, but I can’t give it a soul.
Today, however, I found a draft of a poem that spoke to me in a new way and Lazarused its way out of the Abandoned Drafts file to the Poems file and even into my work in progress!
So don’t throw away your abandoned drafts!