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Joan Murray, “Gimme a Break: On Revision and Line Breaks”
 
Years ago, an acquaintance, working on his doctorate, asked me to be the subject of his dissertation. He wanted to determine whether a poet experiences greater pleasure in writing a first draft or doing a revision. I could have saved him lots of time by just telling him “first draft,” but instead I agreed to be his lab rat.
 
My task was to save my drafts: first, second, and any others—each with fewer cross-outs, slashes, inserts, and doodles. This was the day of electric typewriters, when corrections were made by hand until a marked-up poem was deemed “perfect” and was retyped—often to be marked up again.
 
Every few weeks, the doctoral candidate appeared at my house to collect my drafts and ask a set of questions. Each time I reported enjoying doing first drafts: they were usually written quickly and spontaneously by hand from beginning to end, with all the curves of emotion there, and nearly all the words and images. The rhythms were there too—at least in my head.
 
Yet after those ecstatic leaps into creativity, doing revisions felt awfully dreary. Yes, I might get a little jolt of pleasure if I came up with a more apt image, or thought of a better phrase, or stumbled on a useful internal rhyme. But each draft was less fun. It felt like work—because it was work.
 
As I’ve said, I’m one of those poets who launch into a poem full-throttle, relying on the energy of inspiration to take me where it’s going and get it all down before the gas runs out. Many of my poet friends work differently, slowly accumulating a poem, phrase by phrase. But whichever way we set out, the journey ends for all of us only after we jog down the slow-lane of revision.
 
I’d prefer not to do revisions. Ever. But it’s part of the job of being an artist. Occasionally I get lucky and a poem comes out nearly perfect. When it doesn’t, it’s best to put it aside and let time do some of the labor—for when I pick it up later, I’ll often see the changes that are needed.
 
As a narrative and rhythmic poet, the changes for me often have to do with line breaks—a great tool I use for helping readers hear what I hear in my head. Sometimes it’s obvious where a line should break, but often it’s only after I’ve printed a poem, that I’ll see it doesn’t flow on paper the way I hear it. Maybe a line should go on longer. Or a break come sooner. Then I’ll grab a pen and draw a slash where the break should be. There’s no right or wrong way to break lines. It’s simply a matter of being loyal scribes and setting down accurately what we’re saying to ourselves.
 
Line breaks show (or ought to show) the choices a poet has made about how a poem should sound. Poetry is a musical art after all. And every time a line breaks, there’s a barely perceptible, nano-second pause as the reader’s eye runs back across the page and down to the next line. That nano-pause might emphasize the word before it, or the word after it. And it can emphasize the importance or the sound of either word. Think of someone making a speech and inserting a pause for emphasis. “The only thing we have to fear / is fear itself.” How different that sounds from: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Or: “The only thing / we have to fear / is fear / itself.”
 
Robert Creeley once said he began writing poems in his idiosyncratic, halting cadence because as a young man reading poetry, he believed that an actual pause was supposed to be added at the end of every line, regardless of punctuation. Reading a poem out loud like that—adding a tiny pause after every break—can be a useful exercise to help us discover (albeit exaggeratedly) how a poem will sound to readers.
 
I’ll go through that exercise now, using the beginning of my poem, “Funnel.” (As with most of my poems, I wrote it quickly as it arrived in my head, not paying attention to how it looked.) Now I’ll show a variety of ways I might have set it. Read each one out loud, adding the tiniest pause at the end of every line:
 
 (I)
 
If I’d written “Funnel” as prose, I would have typed it like this—with no nano-pauses at all—because in prose I’d be focusing on content, not thinking much about cadence:
 
Today I couldn’t think of funnel—though I could see them, two of them, nesting inside each other on the butcher-block top of the dishwasher. My husband was at the table with a gallon of Desert Spring and an empty bottle from Glacier Clear—narrow enough to fit the holder in the Volvo.
 
(2)
 
 If my style were more minimalist, I might have set “Funnel” like this—with short lines and lots of nano-pauses:
          
           Today I couldn’t think
           of funnel—
           though I could
           see them,
           two of them,
           nesting inside
           each other
           on the butcher-
           block top of the
           dishwasher . . . .
 
 
But my own style tends to be maximalist. Yet sometimes when my material is exceptionally powerful (as in my poem “20th Century Creativity,” which is about human atrocities), I’ll write in very short, spare lines to let the subject speak directly. I should also mention that as a younger poet, I once deliberately broke my lines in choppy ways, trying to sound more experimental—until Richard Howard at the Paris Review pointed out I was subverting myself and denying the poet I am.
 
(3)
 
When I first typed “Funnel,” I set it in four 8-line stanzas, with a mix of long and short lines. Here are the first two stanzas:
 
Today I couldn’t think of funnel
though I could see them—two of them—
nesting inside each other
on the butcher-block top of the dishwasher.
My husband was at the table with a gallon of Desert Spring
and an empty bottle from Glacier Clear—
narrow enough to fit the holder in my Volvo,
and I said, You should use—
 
and the word wouldn’t come—
 I said, You should use—
as the water struck the brim and spilled down the sides
and splashed to the floor where I rushed
with the sponge and said—
 funnel!
When I rose up dizzy from the sudden shift of blood,
he asked me where I’d been.
 
(4)
 
But it still wasn’t the way I hear it—with long, rolling phrases that emphasize the motion of the quickly unfolding domestic drama, along with the flow of my thoughts, and my natural rhythms. So I revised it again, changing my line breaks and typing the poem in two 12-line stanzas—with longer lines and fewer breaks. And now you can hear it the way I do:
 
 
 
FUNNEL
 
Today I couldn’t think of funnel
though I could see them, two of them, nesting inside
each other on the butcher-block top of the dishwasher.
My husband was at the table with a gallon of Desert Spring
and an empty bottle from Glacier Clear—
narrow enough to fit the holder in the Volvo, 
and I said, You should use—and the word wouldn’t come—
I said, You should use—as the water struck the brim
and spilled down the sides and splashed to the floor
 where I rushed with the sponge and said funnel!
As I rose up dizzy from the sudden shift of blood,
he asked me where I’d been.
 
But how could I tell him that I’d slipped into that place
we used to joke about—where all the things we can’t remember
whirl around together like Dante’s lovers.
 Funnel, I told him, I couldn’t think of— funnel.
Too late, he said, handing me the bottle.
On my way to the door, I tossed him the funnels—
stuck together like two kids coupling—
but my whole way on the highway
as I sipped the Desert Spring in its pose as Glacier Clear,
I kept picturing what I’d glimpsed there as I rose—
the narrow spinning room with both of us inside,
slow-dancing to the tapering of the years.
 
 
This essay, written at the invitation of Bridle Path Press is copyright © by Joan Murray, and used by permission. “Funnel” is included in Murray’s new collection: Swimming for the Ark: New & Selected Poems, 1990-2015 (White Pine Press Distinguished Poets Series).
 
Joan Murray’s new book is: Swimming for the Ark: New & Selected Poems, 1990-2015 (White Pine Press Distinguished Poets Series.) Her earlier books include Looking for the Parade (Norton), winner of the National Poetry Series; The Same Water (Wesleyan), winner of the Wesleyan New Poets Series; Queen of the Mist (Beacon), which won her a Broadway commission; and Dancing on the Edge (Beacon), published in conjunction with her bestselling anthology, Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times. The winner of two National Endowment for the Arts’ Poetry Fellowships, her poems have appeared in many venues, including, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Nation, The Paris Review, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry. She is the editor of The Pushcart Book of Poetry.
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