The Evolution of a Poem

by krstaten

Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is known for being a very short poem that packs a punch. If you’re not familiar with it, it goes as follows:

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd   :
Petals      on a wet, black    bough   .

That’s it. No, really. That’s the whole thing.

Which is why it surprised me when an English professor a few years ago casually mentioned how long the original draft of that poem was. About thirty lines, she said. I’ve always wondered if the original draft was accessible anywhere–one of my greatest passions in the writing process is editing, and I’d love to see how Ezra Pound pared this poem down to these stunning lines. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to get my hands on the original version, if such a thing exists anywhere.

But it changed the way I viewed my editing process. I felt the freedom to not just alter the words of a poem, but to drastically change its entire structure. To expand on things I wouldn’t have expanded on, or to cut away everything until only its core remains. I had been afraid to do that before.

This 228-word poem here? Its original draft, an assignment for a poetry class a few years ago, was only 56 words:

I remember when the city’s lights went out.
We laid on your roof for two hours
Staring at the stars, undisturbed by
Harsher man-made lights.
Millions of worlds lay at our fingertips,
Just beyond our reach,
And when one flew by
leaving trails of stardust in its wake,
We made wishes we’d forget in the morning.

Looking back on it, I feel it lacks detail and movement and feels altogether cliche. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell if that’s really how it is, or if it’s just that I’m so familiar with the poem that that’s how it feels to me. I think that’s really the case on this one, though.) I think if I’d restricted myself to a similar structure and length, or felt obligated to retain at least some of the original verbiage, I would have had a hard time moving past the stage this poem was at. The freedom to make that poem into something entirely new made a huge difference in my editing process.

Next experiment: Taking one of my longer works and gutting it to just a couple lines. We’ll see what happens, eh?