Revise, revise, but when is too much?

June 25, 2009

Fallow Field by Joshua Sheldon

Fallow Field by Joshua Sheldon

One of my oldest friends and long-time readers, the photographer Joshua Sheldon, was with me when I wrote a poem called “Fallow Field.”

In fact, we were both inspired by the same image we saw, one summer driving south out of the Adirondack Mountains. A field, a car, a barn.

I wrote the poem in a quick burst of notes crawling around in the field as Joshua searched for the best angle to capture the scene on film. (See the result at left.)

Joshua’s photograph hangs on my wall and has adorned at least one book (not yet mine).  My poem was published in Blueline, a journal published at SUNY Potsdam.

Some time over the years, after its publication, I revised the poem, excising what I thought were superfluous lines that made too fine a point in trying to draw a parallel between the subject’s experience — a woman who ended her marriage abruptly — and the landscape we found.  The lines removed are underlined below:

Fallow Field

The old car is there,

where she left it,

out by the old shed,

breeding rust–obscured

from the roadway by the rye grass

that grows up all around.

Long triangular tentacles

blowing and bending

in the hot breeze, as

sunlight filters in

through gathering clouds.

By now the grass has worked

up into the engine block.

The car--an old

Chevrolet or Buick?–

no matter, it’s what

is planted now,

in this fallow field,

awaiting bulldozers.

They call this grass

“poverty grain,” and there’s

no small comfort in the fact

that it’s as tolerant

of poor soils

as she was of the poor soils

of her marriage.

On the day she left,

she packed her whole life

into an old grip:  clothing,

framed photographs

of the children, her parents,

the salt cellar she’d bought

on her honeymoon in Rome.

While packing, she’d given

pause that her whole life

had become so

portable, where once there’d

been permanence.  And now,

she blows and bends

like this rye grass

on a midsummer afternoon,

so far from home,

so far from the old shed

of her former self.

Joshua’s objections are outlined in the following email:

SEA:  Ok, I’ve read and re-read the two versions of Fallow Field and again I want to express my support for the earlier version.  There are three changes I’m aware of, two lines in the body and the ending.  I don’t feel the two lines alter the poem much but the ending!  The ending Scott!  It flowed before, it let you down easy, it tied it all up like the well written present that it was.

I agree with Joshua that the old ending tied it all up neatly — just a little too neatly for my taste.  I think the newer ending, with its abruptness, speaks more to the experience of the woman in the poem, and is more true to life.

Things don’t always end neatly.  In fact, I suggest that most things don’t. Life is full of messy, sudden changes, especially in relationships.

Below is how the revised version of the poem reads today.  What do you think?

Fallow Field

The old car is there,

where she left it,

out by the old shed,

breeding rust–obscured

from the roadway by the rye grass

that grows up all around.

Long triangular tentacles

blowing and bending

in the hot breeze, as

sunlight filters in

through gathering clouds.

By now the grass has worked

up into the engine block.

The car

is planted now,

in this fallow field,

awaiting bulldozers.

They call this grass

“poverty grain,” and there’s

no small comfort in the fact

that it’s as tolerant

of poor soils

as she was of her marriage.

On the day she left,

she packed her whole life

into an old grip:  clothing,

framed photographs

of the children, her parents,

the salt cellar she’d bought

on her honeymoon in Rome.

While packing, she’d given

pause that her whole life

had become so

portable, where once there’d

been permanence.  And now,

she blows and bends–

rye grass on a midsummer afternoon.

##

6 Responses to “Revise, revise, but when is too much?”

  1. Mark Herrera Says:

    Great discussion Scott, and always a favorite of mine. When I saw the initial edits omitting the last five lines, i got concerned, I thought the result would be too austure, abrupt, and I felt it would be important to bring the grass back into the poem’s closure and was glad to see it there.


  2. Hi Scott, thanks for posting the link to this on my LatitudeDrifts blog. I enjoyed your description of writing this with the photographer — what you saw, and what he saw — and the subsequent revisions. (I am fascinated by writers’ processes.) And I love your third ending. The image of the grass holds so much — I’m glad you put it back.


  3. […] The paperback book is 96 pages, including front and back matter, with a gorgeous cover photograph by my good friend Joshua Sheldon (see picture), which was taken at the same time and has the same origin of inspiration as the title poem. (You can read the poem and its story here: “Fallow Field.”) […]


  4. […] you can read the poem here or in my new book of poems, which you can purchase […]


  5. […] they’ve never included any of mine – not even some of my better efforts, like “Naming” and “Fallow Field.” The latter was nominated for a Pushcart, but as the title poem of my collection published last […]


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