by Kirby Congdon…….
The Curator and Librarian of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, Elspeth Healey, at the University of Kansas asked me, after I had sent her an early manuscript that had gotten misplaced among my own papers, how do I approach old work like that? Do I have difficulty making editorial changes or is the text considered, preferably, as a final one?
The passage of time does give one a fresh view of old work. One’s ideas change. My reply to Ms. Healey is that I try to finish a poem the first time around, give or take a gestation period that may be a few days or even years, but I like to avoid embarrassment even if the poem has not seen print. Any change I may have decided on lies in three different areas. If a poem attempts to repeat a truism, if it gives tutorial advice about anything, my reaction is that I have inadvertently fallen into the trap of preaching. This trap is an easy one to fall into because it is satisfying to teach what one is finding out for oneself. But if you sound superior, the reader can be alienated. This reservation about teaching morals, behavior or whatever, has persuaded me that a poem succeeds more easily if we do not dictate what that poem is going to say. Independent ideas crop up and reconciling them with the text one already has tempts one, as it were, to listen to what the poem is trying to tell you. This suggests unexpected conflicts that arise but the poem can survive the confusion and frequently is the better for it. This is a satisfaction too.
Another category is the poem that has a particular subject to consider. In it the narrator, once more, faces the challenge of keeping the treatment of that subject an interesting one by avoiding pat references and unoriginal statements. A sense of concern or curiosity underlies a poem’s life. Writing to order is not recommended.
A final category is the poem that is promoted by chance. It does not know where it is going, has no program and needs cohesion. The narrator and the poet himself are handmaidens to whatever comes forward. This can be a complex situation. It is one of the most demanding situations and the attempt to handle it can easily collapse. Yet it can be, when successful, the kind of poem that the writer can’t predict but which can be his own work at its best. The term, the gift of having a talent, becomes evident and that is its own reward. The writer feels his time has been used well and he himself feels useful in being creative, the reward of almost any human activity.