“Poetry is a most difficult art”: William Carlos Williams on revision

July 20, 2011 — Leave a comment

Practice, practice, practice! must be the practice of the artist.

– William Carlos Williams

Letter from William Carlos Williams to Denise Levertov, c. 1956

I found this – and other letters between Williams and Levertov – here.
This one is so eloquent, so tender, so specific, so sage. A letter from one artist to another, but more specifically a letter from a mentor to an emerging artist. Imagine Denise Levertov as an emerging artist!

Denise Levertov

Dear Denise:

Your new lot of poems at their best show the ability with the words that I have come to look for from you, the same mastery of the rhythmic structure. At the same time it reinforces my knowledge that poetry is a most difficult art. It requires constant attention to detail and a conscience that lays in wait to trip us up at the smallest lapse from perfection. “The Lovers” is a beautiful piece of work. “Tomatlan”, that attempts more, is also a good work which I very much like but it is not as sharply cut as I’d like to see.

One word too much in such short poems as this damages the whole effect. Without showing it all such short poems have to be cut to the quick. One redundant word overburdens the line intolerably.

The test of the artist is to be able to revise without showing a seam. In “The Lovers” you yourself state that the poem as I saw it had been revised. That proves that you have the right knowledge of what you’re doing. It often is no more than a question of knowing what to cut. And in the process of cutting, part of the same gesture, the new word, the insight in your own meaning will suddenly flash across your mind.

Practice, practice, practice! must be the practice of the artist. You have to write (as you must know) practically in your sleep and leap out of bed day or night when the inevitable word comes to your mind: it may never come again. You know all this but it can bear repeating, I am talking as much to myself as I am to you.

All the best passages we have ever written come to us in the flash of an — sometimes we lose them (it must be admitted) by revision, but that is a chance that has to be taken.

I return your script to show you what I would do to it — and never forget that as between writers there are no secrets. All I have is yours as far as I can make it so. I don’t expect that you will agree with me. Good luck.

Best,

Bill

William Carlos Williams

“A Love Song” by William Carlos Williams

What have I to say to you
When we shall meet?
Yet—
I lie here thinking of you.

The stain of love
Is upon the world.
Yellow, yellow, yellow,
It eats into the leaves,
Smears with saffron
The horned branches that lean
Heavily
Against a smooth purple sky.

There is no light—
Only a honey-thick stain
That drips from leaf to leaf
And limb to limb
Spoiling the colours
Of the whole world.

I am alone.
The weight of love
Has buoyed me up
Till my head
Knocks against the sky.

See me!
My hair is dripping with nectar—
Starlings carry it
On their black wings.
See, at last
My arms and my hands
Are lying idle.

How can I tell
If I shall ever love you again
As I do now?

(Listen to Ron Silliman read it here)

“When We Look Up” by Denise Levertov

He had not looked,
pitiful man whom none

pity, whom all
must pity if they look

into their own face (given
only by glass, steel, water
barely known) all
who look up

to see-how many
faces? How many

seen in a lifetime? (Not those that flash by, but those

into which the gaze wanders
and is lost

and returns to tell
Here is a mystery,

a person, an
other, an I?

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