Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What counts as a new poem?

After reading the comments on Monica's excellent post, I wanted to chime in with my own number of new poems. The problem is, I'm not sure what counts. (That and it sounds like sharing with a date how many people you've slept with--too few and you come off as a prude, too many and perhaps a bit diseased...)

Don't get me wrong, I'm a very productive person (sometimes too productive, I hear you, Tory, when you comment that revision is a tricky bastard). And I think its awesome that Monica has 17 and Tory 30 and JayTee 11. Each of those numbers of new poems is excellent. (I'm leaving my own disgusting, unsatisfying number of new poems in the comments section...)

I guess beyond the problem of "is this (new) poem good enough," I really want to ask, is it even a new poem? For me there are the new poems I like and want to keep. New poems that have received multiple drafts (multiple drafts that are, sometimes, their own poems). New poems that have received multiple drafts and show promise but still kind of suck. Poems I like but that I don't think count as successful poems (and in that case I'm not sure I want to count them as poems at all, though surely by most metrics they are).

As someone who keeps a ton of notes and is constantly revising old work (or mashing old work together in the interests of generation), I also am unsure which of my old work turned new counts as new poems. Is it the number of lines that change, the words, the addition of a focus or a metaphor? A new last line? Or title? (Heck, what about poems you find discarded that it turns out were good all along?)

I was at VSC when Eric Pankey was a guest poet there (very good poet and very good reader of poems, by the way) and he told a story about how Donald Justice used to have fun little competitions between students at Iowa...to ruin great poems. The point was to ruin the great poem with the fewest moves possible. For instance, the insertion of a comma, or the change of a period to a --. Of course, someone else could ruin the poem better, so merely changing one semi-colon into a colon wasn't all it took. You had to be select in your ruinings.

I'm not sure why I add that, except that I find it to be a fascinating exercise, and I think it sheds a little light on all of our poems as evolving artifacts.

But that doesn't mean we can't try to answer the question (or don't already have an answer for it): what counts as a new poem?


  1. Please do add a comment about what constitutes a new poem.

    But if you're looking for a dirty number fix--for my own diseased, addicted part, this is my rough estimate: 71, including substantial revisions but not including collaborative poems, and beginning when I moved to Houston in August.

    Now here's the funny part: I like about 17 of them. So I guess 17? (An unintentional mathematical rhyme, but the numbers don't lie...)

  2. Regardless if you like all 71 or not, good job! I'm sure you are uncovering a lot with that writing to get to your really good stuff.

    I keep a document open on my computer where I do free writing. It's all in poem form. I start my writing sessions by going back and reading what I've previously written until I get a spark. Then I begin to write and revise (and revise) a poem. Once I think I've got a poem that can stand on its own, I put a border around it and give it its own file on my computer. So I counted all my bordererd poems to get the number 11.

    How many of those poems did I workshop? 5
    How many did I discuss only with my professor in consultation? 4
    Total poems shared with my program: 9

    Oh and I totally name-dropped you during lunch with Tony Hoagland lol. We were talking about MFA programs and getting in and he mentioned that they lose some people they accept because the funding may not be as great as other places. I said that from what I heard the funding at Houston is great right now, especially with that extra $15,000 over 3 years. I said I got the info from this blog, he asked who was blogging from Houston, I said you. He seemed pleased. lol

  3. There's a very good conversation between John Cage and Morton Feldman available on UbuWeb. They're talking as composers and as people who carefully listen to sound(s), but I'm sure you can make a quick jump from it to poetry. I love this part where Feldman's describing arriving at the beach on Coney Island and hearing several hundred radios spread out all playing at once. He's suddenly hit with the thought, "When is something an interruption?" I've loved trying this thought out ever since I first heard it.

  4. Jamie, thank you for that! Awesome! (Composers are a wonderfully strange and interesting bunch...)

    JayTee, that's so funny! Thanks for the name-drop--I'll have to ask him about that next time I see him. Yeah, I think they see the funding at Michener (Austin's a three-hour drive) and assume that we must not be offering enough money--but hey, if they can find more all the power to them...

  5. Excellent question - what is a new poem? For me, I only consider a poem "new" if it is a new idea. If I take the meat of a poem and revise it substantially I see it as a revision and not new, now if I only take one line - hmm - think that is just one line I'm putting in a new poem.

    I love JayTee's process btw!

    I'm not sure it ultimately matters, except for what you consider turning into workshop. I made a point of never turning in a piece I had already workshopped, why, I don't know - guess I wanted to produce as much new material as I could.

    Now to go write some new stuff :)

  6. to echo Jessie: New idea = new poem to me. I have revised many of the poems from my MA thesis this semester, but revision is a completely different animal in terms of how I look at a poem and how I view my writing, how much time I spend with it, etc..

    I've had 4 poems workshopped this semester, but I've written at least 15 for both my thesis meetings and me. I've got another 10-15 ideas/starts/scribbles for poems I want to write on top of that...I never have a shortage of ideas--it's just finding the time to get it down!

  7. I like that new poem=new idea. I guess it starts to get uncategorical at that point, since its up to you what to decide is the idea (or somewhat more crassly, motivation)...

  8. it is interesting post and the commonts add much to it.
    my question is - why is it important to have a number of that kind?
    i think i am producing very low number of poems (without thinking of good or bad - this would reduce the number to very little) as i cannot yet (or mabye better) force my writing at any rate. either they come or not.

  9. I don't think it's important so much as interesting to note what we feel we are producing and what that means about our writing, or process, or what have you.

    Fecundity in and of itself doesn't mean anything, obviously, just like at Bishop as an example. I think the hustle and flow of the writing changes too over time. I am always curious about how people compose because I think it tells you a lot about the way they are as people.

  10. Well said, Tory. Much agreed.

    Utopianfragments, I do think that nothing will force the good poems to come. And I agree that observing for quality during gestation would be disastrous.

    Although, I'd be more worried about publishing a lot of (or, too many) poems than writing a lot of (or, too many) poems.


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