Thursday, April 11, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Revision, Revision, and Revision

                                                                              this evening
                                                                              I took a comma out
                                                                              of the poem
                                                                              summer stars reflected
                                                                              on the lake of my mind

Read in the context of the Japanese poetic tradition, the night of June 23, 1908, was the beginning of one of those unique creative interludes experienced by the gifted few. The poverty-stricken poet Takuboku Ishikawa wrote at least 246 tanka in fifty hours. Most importantly, 100 of these tanka written in those three days were published in the July 1908 issue of Myojo, edited by tanka reformer Tekkan Yosano (Akiko Yosano's husband). Written at this Muse-inspired time were such famous tanka (Goldstein and Shinoda, p. 18)

on a white strip of sand
on a tiny island
in the eastern sea
drowned in tears
I play with a crab

kidding around
carried my mother
I stopped dead, and cried,
she's so light...

no way back
to 14 --
whispering my name
I wept
(Note: The translations above are from Carl Sesar, pp. 27, 33, 61)

For Takuboku, the creative process often didn't end when he finished the work. Although most of his tanka constantly give the impression of having been composed spontaneously, he was actually a painstaking revisionist. He often revised his tanka on republication (Ueda, pp. 117-8). For example, 

Version A, composed on the night of June 25, 1908

For no reason
I left my home
and for no reason
I returned: this I have done
five times already.

Version B, the July issue of Morning Star

For no reason
I left my native province
and for no reason
I returned: this I have done
five times already.

Version C, A Handful of Sand, 1910

For no reason I left my home
and for no reason I returned -- though
my friend laughs at this habit of mine!

For a struggling poet like me (and maybe including some of you), the only way to get a work published is to revise, revise, and revise. As you know, much has been written about revision. But I would like to share with you the following passage from Edward Weeks's book, entitled This Trade of Writing:

A. Edward Newton tells a story of Oscar Wilde at an English house party. Pleading the necessity of working while the humor was on, he begged to be excused from joining the other guests. In the evening his hostess asked him what he had accomplished, “This morning,” he said, “I put a comma in one of my poems.” Surprised, the lady inquired whether the afternoon’s work had been equally exhausting. “Yes,” said Wilde, passing his hand wearily over his brow, “this afternoon I took it out again.” Every writer worth rereading has suffered from this backing-and-filling process.… When the ideas begin to run smoothly they can so easily run away with us, leaving behind pages which in a colder mood seem full of extravagance. In the heat of composition it is not wise to halt for precision; that must come later, the search for the exact word, the smooth transition, the terse phrase that will save half a page…. Revision is the worst possible drudgery; yet no book has been made full and rich without it.


1 Ishikawa, Takuboku, translated by Sanford Goldstein Seishi Shinoda, Romaji Diary and Sad Toys
2 Sesar, Carl, Takuboku: Poems to Eat  
3 Ueda, Makoto, Modern Japanese Poets and the Nature of Literature 
4 Weeks, Edward, This Trade of Writing


  1. Ted Kooser, the 13th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, disagrees with Weeks’s view of revision as “drudgery.” He emphasizes that “[you] can love tinkering with drafts of poems till a warm hand from somewhere above you reaches down, unscrews the top of your head, drops in a solution that blows your ears off."

  2. I just added a fine example of Takuboku's revisions: three different versions of the same tanka. The final revision mainly focuses on the loneliness of the speaker, whose existential angst is not understood by his friend.