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Poets on Poetry: Revision

Jeff Eaton

April is National Poetry Month.  As part of our month-long series Poets on Poetry, Nicolet College Instructor Jeff Eaton reflects on the value of revision.

Writing “the best words in their best order,” according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, defines poetry. Easily said, but not so easily achieved. Invention, the calling up of images, at some point must give over to revision – the “seeing again” that becomes the core work of composing poetry.

But the poet William Stafford emphasized another aspect of revision in his essay titled “You Must Revise Your Life.” As with the writing itself, it can be difficult to “see again” the way you have invented your life – to step back and ponder whether the lines and stanzas of living reveal a thoughtful, purposeful pattern.

Making room for poetry in your life when you live in a culture that does not particularly value poetry is quite an act of faith and courage, especially when confronting the typical expectations of career and family. Admitting in a small town high school that I liked to write poetry was limited to a girlfriend and an English teacher. Admitting that I like to write journalism, well that could be public – it was masculine and tied to a career.

College in the 1970s offered a more comfortable habitat for a budding poet, though the world outside the campus sang a somewhat menacing siren song of making a living at journalism. Thus, the compromise of a double major, which may not exactly be the revision that Stafford had in mind, for I soon found that 50-hour weeks and three deadlines a day leave little time or focus to write poetry.

I didn’t actually discover Stafford’s sage advice until I had already made a drastic revision to my life, leaving 15 years of daily newspapering behind and enrolling in a graduate writing program. Stafford’s book was assigned in one of my first poetry workshops and it rang true with my cadre of mid-life divorcees and career dropouts. We knew first hand that poetry does not flow easily in a life arranged to do something else. The luxury of a quiet back-corner office in the university library basement gave me that personal space and time to actually attend to arranging those “best words in their best order.”  

When I taught English composition in China after grad school, some of my students gave me the Chinese name Chen Si, which translates as “deep thoughts,”  as I regularly reminded them to rethink, then rewrite their essays. When we bought a 26-foot sloop a few years back, my wife and I rechristened it “Revision,” as it spoke to both our efforts on the page and in life. A pattern emerges.

Thus, I learned from Coleridge and Stafford that most of us have the ability to create our own reality, to construct a life that has order and meaning and value, to ourselves if to no one else. Writing poetry requires invention, the articulation of thought through image out of perception. But when that bubbling spring of invention pours its boisterous flow onto the page, it should pool before a questioning eye.

As I approach my impending retirement from teaching, I am being asked what I will do now. Well, I certainly plan to spend more time walking in the woods, letting my eyes wander in search of the images and language that Emerson assures us nature will provide. I still find it somewhat difficult to come right out and say, “I’m going to write poems.” It seems somewhat precious in such a hard-nosed world. It also seems like such a commitment. But that is what Stafford continues to whisper in my ear – revise your life, make that commitment to poetry. Striving to put “the best words in their best order” does matter.

This latest revision in my life brings me back to a poem from my graduate thesis, which focused on creating ritual language for our daily habits.

Words of Assurance


Just remember

it could be worse.


Each day that you rise

no matter the hour

or the stabbing behind

the eyes,

inscribe a square on the floor

with your big toe

and step into it.


You now have four directions

to choose from

when you leave the square.


The first may take you to the window,

where the lesson is laid out

beyond the sill.


The second may take you to the dresser,

where your identity

awaits assemblage.


The third may take you back to the bed,

where you can curl up so tight

that neutron stars wince.


The fourth may take you to the door,

where you can start

all over again.


Inscribe a square with your big toe

and step into it.

Just remember,

it could always be worse.


Inscribe a square.

Do it again.

And again.

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