After I told some friends about my great experiences at the Southampton Writers Conference, where I got to take a workshop with Billy Collins, I got puzzled responses from some people who aren’t typical poetry consumers. They were curious to know how anyone could teach you to write better poetry.

Igor Stravinsky once said that, if he were to create a textbook on orchestration, he would have to use only examples from his own music, because those would be the only ones where he could tell if the orchestration was successful. Similarly, my poetry is the work I am most intimately acquainted with.

Here is the text of one of the poems I brought to the workshop for a critique. I brought it because I thought it was unsuccessful, but I cared enough about it so that I wanted to make it work:

Badges

She’d been very sick,
the neighbor across the street
whose husband died so young.

Then she was better again.

I saw her in her garden
just last September,
working with a younger friend,
smiling.
Next summer you can help, she said.
I said I would.

Then I didn’t see her for a while.

Now I see strangers’ cars,
five or six at a time.
Some of the people wear badges.
They rush through the light snow.
They do not look like
they want to answer questions.

The people in the workshop, including Collins, were complementary about the first two thirds of the poem, pointing out its values of compression and good selection of detail. They didn’t like the stanza breaks for single lines, which I agreed were unnecessary. And the line “working with a younger friend” was too general, so I changed it to “pulling weeds with a younger friend.”

The last stanza, though, did not convey what I wanted it to. The image the readers got, except for one person who understood my intentions, was of emergency workers coming to help with a desperate situation. That wasn’t my intention, and it didn’t make sense in the context of the poem either. I explained that what I wanted to convey was my experience of seeing these people across the street and realizing that they were hospice workers and that my friendly neighbor was dying.

The first detail I got objections to was “five or six at a time.” I had actually seen that many at once, but truth in itself doesn’t justify its inclusion in a poem. Fewer cars was the recommendation. The badges didn’t compute for most people. They didn’t understand I had meant to indicate name tags that medical workers wear. And the detail of rushing through the snow, even though the people had actually rushed–probably just to get through the snow faster–contributed to the impression of an emergency. Collins’s remark, one he made many times during the course of the workshop, was that there were too many cards left face down on the table. It surprised me at first, since I aim at a plainspoken style without obscurity. But I realized that obscurity isn’t only a problem of language. In this case, it was a problem of the selection of detail, which had been so much more successful earlier on in the poem.

After I assimilated the various comments (many written out on the copies of the poem people had read), I revised the poem as follows:

Badges

She’d been very sick,
the neighbor across the street
whose husband died so young.
Then she was better again.

I saw her in her garden
just last September,
pulling weeds with a younger friend,
smiling.
Next summer you can help, she said.
I said I would.
Then I didn’t see her for a while.

Now I see strangers’ cars,
two or three at a time.
Sometimes people sit in their cars
writing notes.
Some of the people
wear name badges on cords.
They trudge through the light snow.
They do not look like
they want to answer questions.

This version, I think, gives the reader a serious chance to understand my intentions, and to share in a small way the experience of discovery. If I find out there are other places in the poem which obstruct that experience, I’ll be revising again.

Incidentally, I recommend Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual, among numerous fine books on the writing of poetry.

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