Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

First word not always the best word

or, even the greats revise.

WASHINGTON — Preservation scientists at the Library of Congress have discovered that Thomas Jefferson, even in the act of declaring independence from England, had trouble breaking free from monarchial rule.

In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote the word “subjects,” when he referred to the American public. He then erased that word and replaced it with “citizens,” a term he used frequently throughout the final draft.

The headline writer got it wrong when he/she said that Jefferson “made slip in Declaration.” That suggests that there was only ever one option for the word Jefferson used, and that Jefferson should have had that hammered out before putting anything down to paper. The truth is that “subjects” is accurate–we are subjects to the federal government, after all. We are subject to its laws, even though we nominally have some say in their creation. And Jefferson probably had that in mind when he began drafting the Declaration.

But like all good writers, he realized that “subjects” had a connotation which made him uncomfortable, especially given the circumstances surrounding the piece he was writing. “Citizens” is more independent-sounding than “subjects,” and so is more appropriate. Jefferson didn’t make an error in starting with “subjects;” he just found a better word later and made the change.

There are two ways I can go with the rest of this post, and as I am not Robert Frost, I’m going to go down both of them.

Road One: Barack Obama knows how to deliver a speech. He’s terrific at it. And yes, he has speech writers, but they don’t just drop a speech on him and let him read the words. (Side note: for an interesting take on this subject, read Overthinking It’s discussion of the end of the movie The American President.) Obama is an integral part of the speech creation process. How do I know this? Take a look.

I showed this to my Comp and Lit students last year as an example of why revision matters. Most of the notes involve changes in word order or usage, points of emphasis, that sort of thing, not grammatical matters. But my point to my students was still the same–good writing doesn’t just spring from your fingertips the morning before the paper is due. Good enough writing can come that way, passable writing can come that way, but not good writing. That’s one of the reasons why I often cringe when I look back at some of the things I’ve written on my blogs in the past–not so much because of what I’ve written (though there’s some of that as well), but more because of the way it’s written. All this is first draft kind of stuff, for the most part, and it shows.

Road Two: Which brings me to poetry. I hate revising my own work. Hate. Drives me up the wall. And yet I feel like poets who don’t revise their poems do not only themselves, but their readers a disservice, because no one is brilliant the first time around. Lots of people are capable of flashes of brilliance the first time around, but no one pulls it off completely, not consistently. First thought is not always best thought.

Which is not to say that revision is the answer to every poem’s problems. Indeed, sometimes you can revise the life right out of a poem (which is why you should always keep copies of earlier drafts, so you can retrace your steps if you get lost). Revision is particularly important in poetry, I think, because each word carries much more weight than they do in prose. Poetic language is dense, or at least it ought to be (in my opinion) and so each word matters more, even down to one’s use (or not) of articles and conjunctions, for example. Query every word. Examine its implications. Make sure it’s the best one. And if it turns out that you got it right the first time, then congratulations. But remember, even the greats revise.

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July 2, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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