Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 7, 2014

Revising Language

People who see revision as fixing may not have as much fun as we who consider it as a conversation. Every time we go back, we learn new things from what we, or our former selves, put on the page. We find words written yesterday, or a few months or years ago, and now that we’re wiser or less besotted, we can step back and engage in a conversation between mystery and knowing. We have a new chance to be surprised, at least if we don’t come to the work in a red pencil frame of mind. In Under the Sign, poet Ann Lauterbach writes, “Language is an astonishment; it never betrays its capacity for renovation. Why, then, do we rush to turn it to purely instrumental purposes?” Of course sometimes words serve a practical purpose, but other times we might unsettle, explore, or play. We want to kick up fallen leaves with all their scents, rustle, and memories, finding what’s underneath, creating new associations.

I come to the page sometimes with tenderness, sometimes angry, sometimes in simply the spirit of there being work to do. All of these moods have something to give, though I’m careful, moving softly as we do around secrets. I seek courage, too. Did I say everything? Doubtful. Enough? There’s the hope. It’s good to let drafts swell and shrink, allowing openings where the unconscious can gather, then take away. My strategy as a poet is to first write long, then ask again and again: Can this be shorter? And I keep a close eye as I scrape away, watching for what might be lost, and what can be risked. When a corner of a poem glows like polished glass, we’re reminded to keep on. Somehow, someday, we can make the rest shine, too.





  1. Beautiful post, Jeannine. Wise, wonderful words on revision.

  2. “When a corner of a poem glows like polished glass, we’re reminded to keep on. Somehow, someday, we can make the rest shine, too.” I love this interpretation of revision, Jeannine – revision is really about loving the piece enough to be willing to polish away and hope for that shine.

    • Thanks, Tara. You bring up a new angle on love. We don’t love a piece so try to save every word, but it’s the sort of love that can survive being shaken up, tossed around, then taking a look in another light.

  3. Revision as conversation… you always say exactly what’s inside me but I hadn’t thought of yet. 🙂 xo

    • So happy to be on the same wavelengths with you!

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