There’s one typo in my first book of poetry, and for years it drove me nuts. The book was printed old-style, from offset plates rather than from a digital file, and making the correction would have meant producing new plates—hideously expensive and completely out of the question. I just had to learn to live with it. Thirteen years later I can (almost) laugh about how my editor and I went over and over the copy, but neither of us caught the glitch until we saw the book in print.
I work hard to get every line right, to make sure every word says exactly what I’m trying to say; close enough isn’t good enough. I might take all day and night to decide between “outraged” and “indignant.” Then the next morning I’ll change my mind. Even when I’ve spent more time over the thing than any sane person could justify, and I watch the poem finally wobble off on it’s first solo bike ride to the publisher, I have a hard time letting go. I want to run after it shouting, “Wait, wait…I gotta fix that line break!”
And for most poets the obsession doesn’t end when the work’s in print. A very careful reader might notice tiny differences between a particular poem as it originally appeared in a book or literary magazine and its anthologized version. A comma added or subtracted. A different line break. Changes usually invisible to anyone but the poet.
This drive for perfection is firmly rooted in a certain aproach to the creative process, an approach not shared by every culture. In Japan, a country where an extraordinarily high level of skill exists in virtually every area of art and craft, there’s a tolerance for—in fact, an embrace of imperfection. A potter might intentionally leave a cup or a bowl for a tea ceremony a bit asymmetrical. An exquisitely crafted model boat might have a tiny spot where a joint is left a little rough. The imperfection is a place to “let the spirit out.”
"Wabi Sabi" is the traditional Japanese world view that focuses on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. For a craftsperson or artist with this perspective, an object a bit worn from use, or solidly made but not quite “perfect” might be more esthetically satisfying than something absolutely perfect, shiny and new.
Keeping all this in mind, maybe we poets can learn to treat ourselves with what the Buddhists call “ruthless compassion.” Let’s try as hard as we can to write poetry that's as clean and clear and strong as possible, to say what we have to say with a fierce commitment to honesty and craft. And then let's learn to set our poems free, knowing that everything we write is really a work in progres. (And yeah, that typo's a drag. But nobody's bleeding.)
I’ve had a blast this week as guest blogger here and I hope we meet again, somewhere down the road. Until then, "Metaphors Be with You."
I’ll sign off now with one of my favorite poems:
by Molly Peacock
The best thing about a hand-made pattern
is the flaw.
Sooner or later in a hand-loomed rug,
among the squares and flattened triangles,
a little red nub might soar above a blue field,
or a purple cross might sneak in between
the neat ochre teeth of the border.
The flaw we live by, the wrong bit of warp,
now wreathes among the uniform strands
and, because it does not match,
makes a red bird fly,
turning blue field into sky.
It is almost, after long silence, a word
spoken aloud, a hand saying through the flaw,
I’m alive, discovered by your eye.