On Re-writing Poems

W.B. Yeats reading

W.B. Yeats reading

Years ago I remember reading that Yeats would constantly re-write and re-work even his most famous published poems. At the time I read that, it sounded like the most insane thing I had ever heard. Why go to all the work to make a poem, to get it right, have it set into type and published only to go back and shake it all up again? How could you progress, I thought, or grow, if you kept returning to earlier things and re-doing them?

That is what I thought at age 23 or 24. Now that I am more than 25 years further down the road I understand why he did it.

I have re-written and re-worked poems for years and decades. That is probably one of the many reasons that I have been so reluctant over the years to send out what I have written to be considered for publication. At the most basic level, I do not think of any of my poems as truly finished.

It would be easy I suppose to say that it is because none of my poems are really good enough to be considered finished. Often in my most melancholy of moments– and I have many of those– I have interpreted my compulsion to re-visit and re-work in just that way. But that does not explain why a poet as great as Yeats would do the same thing to poems that were already beautiful.

Yeats understood that each poem he wrote changed him as a poet. The new poet looked at his old poems and said: “now it will be what is should be.” We re-write and re-work because each thing we write changes us…. and being changed, we return to old poems with new perspectives and new ideas.

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