Revision Means Seeing Again: A Guest Post by John Morgan

Note: this piece comes from my essay collection FORMS OF FEELING: POETRY IN OUR LIVES.  It will be out later this month from SalmonPoetry.

When I was fifteen I fell off a cliff. I was unconscious for three days and woke up in a Catholic hospital with a Crucifix on the wall of my room. I had been off in New Mexico on a camping trip. To wake up in that immaculate white room with bloody Christ looking down on me was pretty disorienting.
I have a poem about this which goes back in five utterly different versions to my undergraduate days in college. The first attempt transformed the situation into a plane crash. The crash took place in Juneau, Alaska. At the time I had never been to Alaska and didn’t know how dangerous the Juneau airport, girdled by mountains, can be. In any case, the poem itself is pretty awful.
In graduate school I wrote a poem about falling down a well. No mention of cliffs or New Mexico, but it was that adolescent experience that I was trying to get at. I had hopes for this version, but somehow it never quite came off. A few years later, I wrote another poem called “The Hole” about—you guessed it—falling down a hole. It was a prose poem, flat and too jokey, but it contained the germ—several key images survive into later versions.
Now, like the two earlier poems—the plane crash and the well-falling—“The Hole” had been brought through many drafts to what I thought was completion. Four years later, however, finding the original unsatisfactory, I rewrote it. I put it into lines and stanzas, shortened it, and cut out some of the jokiness. (The stock market metaphor had to go.) It was still about falling down a hole, but I added a brief note at the beginning about how I had once fallen off a cliff. The connection between that note and the rest of the poem was tenuous, but I thought it might give a stronger grounding in reality to a poem that seemed a bit too disembodied.
A few years later, still dissatisfied, I re-wrote the poem again. I kept a lot of the imagery from the earlier versions about falling down a hole, but now for the first time I managed to work in the actual incident: how I had fallen off a cliff, been unconscious for three days, and woke up in a hospital room with a Crucifix on the wall.
Why? How many times have I heard beginning writers insist, “That’s the way it really happened”? A lame excuse for a poor piece of work. But in my own case, clearly there was the same motive: four different times I had tried to imagine an event that could substitute for the experience I’d actually had. But each time some of the drama had been lost. Since I’m not opposed to altering reality for the sake of artistic truth I suppose I must argue that this poem is an exception: here at least reality exceeded anything my imagination could come up with.
The process of revision as I’ve been describing it may seem itself to be endless. In fact, though, as I work on a poem I find that I am discovering and then clarifying the subject.  “The Endless Fall” took so long because I seemed to resist the poem’s true material, or perhaps because when I began I wasn’t ready to face it.
Is that the end of it? Well, I can’t be sure. While at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass., I took some advice from the poet Alan Dugan and dropped a couple of lines. Now I think it’s done, but I’ve been wrong before.
                        THE ENDLESS FALL: EL MORRO, 1958
            Stuck on a sandstone ledge
            where—god knows—I should never
            have been, I remember starting
            to slip. For three days lost
            to my body, I sank toward the
            bottom of a pool where gray shapes
            splashed around me near the center
            of a fierce design. Deeper down
            the pool became a room:
            did the mind exude the eerie
            soft blue flame by which
            the walls could be read,
            here a bone. a shell, there
            an odd repeating element
            like the sun. Meanwhile my body
            lay—skull cracked, face crusted,
            front teeth gone, male nurses
            adjusting the needles taped
            to my veins—unconscious away
            where Christ’s bloody effigy sagged
            on St. Joseph’s wall. And as the last
            light started to vacate that hole
            I met another self, there at the
            center: he drifted under my skin,
            breathed through my lungs and dreamed
            himself into my wounds. Like brother
            assassins, meeting and parting,
            we float in this vacuum forever.
John Morgan moved to Fairbanks in 1976, to teach in the creative writing program at UAF. He has published four books of poetry, most recently Spear-Fishing on the Chatanika: New and Selected Poems, and four chapbooks, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Republic, AQR, and many other magazines. Two years ago he was chosen to be the first writer-in-residence at Denali National Park.

2 thoughts on “Revision Means Seeing Again: A Guest Post by John Morgan”

  1. I like the intertwined reasons you postulate here – resisting the poem's true material, or not being ready to face it. And I love the brother assassins, meeting and parting. It feels to me like the poem ends there.

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