Sunday, April 12, 2009

Editing poetry

My brother, Michael Eden Reynolds, has won both first and second place in Prism's inaugural poetry contest.

I am not a poet. I rarely read poetry, nor do I write it. It is neither a regret nor a point of pride, merely a reality. But I do try to take an interest in the things that people close to me are doing, so when Michael started getting his poetry published, I was curious. Unfortunately, I must admit finding much of what he sent to me opaque. There were lines I liked, and occasionally a whole poem that would grab me, but often I really didn't know where to start.

When he told me that he was having part of his manuscript edited, I became even more curious. Perhaps the editor's comments would help me understand Michael's poetry. What kind of changes would an editor make anyhow?

When Michael forwarded me the marked up manuscript, I was somewhat disappointed. There was no obvious egress from my comprehensional umbra, but strangely enough, I suddenly understood how you might go about editing something as flexible and creative as poetry, even when you don't understand the whole poem. It would be much the same as when one edits prose, only more stringent.

Now, in general, I think Strunk's injunction to omit needless words is often rather useless advice, but in poems there is more of an imperative to pack the utmost meaning into the fewest mental gestures possible. The editor Michael had engaged seemed to have it in for "gerunds and abstractions and... extra pesky small words, particularly articles." I don't believe in this kind of categorical discrimination, but suddenly I did begin to see lines that would benefit from pruning, and I offered Michael my own editing services.

I began by editing his editor, telling Michael where I agreed and where I didn't. I think he found this a bit of a relief as he had perhaps been a bit intimidated by a lot of the advice he'd received.

During this process, there were times when a more precise or apt word would occur to me. At other times, I found preachy lines where the images had already communicated what needed to be said. With this shift of attention to the technical details of the poems, more meanings began to present themselves and I was able to enter a few more poems, but I also felt that I now had permission to simply say, "I can't make any sense of this at all."

Sometimes, when Michael and I discussed these, it would turn out that he was just stretching the language too far. For example, in the following , I queried arrested... from...
Maze of one, speck of time, arrested
in my pocket from the wide and cloudless
night that apprehends me.
Michael wanted to convey that the speck time had been taken by force, but in the end, we agreed that from is not a legal complement to arrest and that the intended reading simply wasn't available to most readers.

Many times I suggested orthodox punctuation where Michael's was heterodox, often with no obvious benefit either prosodic or semantic. And occasionally, the syntax was simply muddled:
On the boat there’s a slow coil
of water heaps the prow.
A slow coil of water
heaps the prow.
There were also questionable metaphors. Consider the following lines:
"It’s the night before garbage day,
the wind’s as warm as a breath
of frogsong, "
I commented that although frogsong may have associations with the warmth of spring, or that it may warm the soul, "a breath of frogsong" itself doesn't strike me as warm at all.The line became:
It’s the night before garbage day,
warm wind stirring the frogs
into song,
There was also some overly-familiar rhyme and the occasional cliche: "rain against the windowpane", "heaves a sigh."

And of course, I got to make positive comments on lovely descriptions like this one of writing in a foreign script
"characters with sloping
shoulders, cats and lizards, coiled shrubs."
I will admit that much of the editing advice I provided Michael was rather mechanical, surface-level stuff: copy editing mostly. To go beyond that, I'd need to learn a lot more about poetry, something I'm afraid I probably won't do soon. But what I have learned was interesting, and it was a privilege to be able to work with Michael on this project.

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