Interstitial Moment:

I sent this to David Harrison to post or to send on to the young adults trying to write poetry for the first time. His prompt to them was the word “water” and I said I would show them something about revision. And here it is:

Dear kids:

No one—NO ONE—ever gets a poem right the first time. In fact the wonderful poet John Ciardi once said, “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.” So I thought I would try this month’s word with you and then talk about the changes I make as I revise.

First try:

The Word for the World Is Water

The word for the world is water,

who we are, what we weep,

how we rid ourselves of waste,

what we drink, what we cook.

Drinking tea, I think of the vast seas,

the  colored fish, eels snaking

through the depths, the low bubbles

rising slowly, slowly towards the watery sun.

I sit on the toilet and remember salmon

leaping upstream in West Virginia.

Yesterday I poured warm water and salt

into my clogged sinuses.

Pregnant, I watched my unborn child

swim in amniotic fluid  in the sonargram.

Today it snows. My grandchild traverses

her high school campus in high boots,

knowing the percentage of water

in the human body.

The word for the world is water,

And I know it with every drip.

Second try:

I have taken my title and the beginning of the poem from a title of a scienc fiction book by Ursula Le Guin, “The Word for the World Is Forest.”

The Word for the World Is Water

The word for the world is water:

who we are, what we weep,

how we rid ourselves of waste.

Water is the word for the world:

what we drink, what we cook.

in our vitreous eyes, in our blood.

Drinking tea, I think of vast seas,

multi-colored fish exploring coral reefs,

eels snaking through the depths,

low bubbles rising slowly,

slowly towards the watery sun.

I sit on the toilet and remember salmon

leaping upstream in West Virginia.

Yesterday I poured warm water and salt

into my clogged sinuses.

Pregnant, I watched my unborn daughter

swim in amniotic fluid  in a sonargram.

Today it snows.

My daughter’s daughter traverses

her high school campus in high boots,

knowing the percentage of water

in the human body.

The word for the world is water,

I know it with every drip.

Already you can see how I am changing bits and pieces, after reading this aloud. The ear and eye are different listeners. We need to please them both.

I repeated the title in the fourth line because the poem seemed to need to slow down a bit. The lines ran on too long.

I love the word vitreous and glad it found its way here, at least for now.

Note that I have removed a lot of the word “the” in the poem, making lines tighter, less reliant on the kind of words that are just fillers.

Also notice I have rearranged lines to make them make more sense.

Why did I change
child” into “daughter”, and “grandchild” into “daughter’s daughter”? I wanted to be more specific, and to harken back to the birth image so that when we read “daughter’s daughter” we know that child swam inside my daughter’s womb as she had begun her watery life in mine.

Now on to revision number 3.

The Word for the World Is Water

The word for the world is water:

who we are, what we weep,

how we rid ourselves of waste.

Water is the word for the world:

what we drink, what we cook,

in our vitreous eyes, in our blood.

Drinking tea, I think of vast seas,

multi-colored fish exploring coral reefs,

eels snaking through the depths,

low bubbles rising slowly,

slowly towards the water-scanned sun.

In the bathroom I remember salmon

leaping upstream in West Virginia.

Yesterday I poured warm water and salt

into my clogged sinuses.

Pregnant, I watched my unborn daughter

swim in amniotic fluid  in a sonagram,

knew she would be born 78 percent water.

Today it snows.

My daughter’s daughter traverses

her high school campus in high boots,

The word for the world is water.

I know it with every drip.

I have the metaphors down pretty solidly now, but am having second thoughts about some of them. I want to evoke how watery the sun looks from the bottom of the ocean, but the sun itself isn’t watery, so I have changed that to water-scanned. Not happy with it yet.

I also thought that “sitting on the toilet”, or even “sitting in the bathroom” was too literal (and graphic) an image and pulls the reader away from what I am saying, even possibly making them giggle.

I had to google  sonagram—first to spell it correctly. And then again because I didn’t really remember seeing a sonagram of my daughter who was born in 1966, to make sure they were around then. Well, just barely, as it turns out. In the mid-sixties sonagrams were just coming into regular use with pregnant women, and since my daughter was born in a small hospital western Massachusetts, there were probably none there at the time. Or at least none that I remember. I am giving myself a bit of poetic license here.

And I wanted to state the percentage of water that composes the human body, had remembered it wrong as in the 90s. Seems that a baby is born with the greatest percentage, so I used that. The percentage drops down into the 60s in an adult.  Is this kind of research necessary? Not for every poem. But the poet doesn’t want a reader to fall away from the poem because of mistake in the actual history that drives the metaphor.

I know that after only three major revisions, I am certainly not done. But I am done with this poem for now. I might try another 3-10 revisions before deciding the poem doesn’t work at all. Or I may make one more revision and everything will alide into place to my satisfaction. For that moment. After that, I will have to decide, a la John Ciardi, whether to abandon the poem or keep on working.

I hope this shows you some of the inner workings of the poetic mind.

Your book friend,

Jane Yolen

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