Lately I’ve been inspired by something the poet John Berryman said to a young Philip Levine: “Be ruthless with your poems, or someone else will be.” I’ve got a sense that ruthlessness, more than talent or skill or inspiration, gives me my best chance of distinguishing myself from my peers, and gives my poems their best chance of being read and remembered.
I don’t think Berryman’s advice had anything to do with nastiness (though Berryman did some nasty things). It had more to do with love, the love required of a drill sergeant preparing young soldiers for combat, loving them with every barked order—“Get down and give me 10!”—and eliminating the weak ones, who pose a danger to themselves and to the group. Berryman wanted Levine to cultivate standards higher than any critic, so that his poems might stick around.
How does ruthlessness translate to my own work?—how do I make a poem get down and give me 10? One practice I’ve adopted comes in the beginning of the creative process. If I look at a first draft of a poem and understand everything in it, I’ll set it aside as an exercise and never look at it again. That goes especially for when what I’ve written seems like it’s pretty good. I know that feeling from early on in my writing life: “Hey, this is pretty good,” I’d tell myself, then show it to a few friends who concur: pretty good. It looks like a poem, it’s eminently competent, even smart. And it’s a waste of time.
When William Packard once told me that a poem of mine was good, he also said, “You know, the enemy of the great poem isn’t the bad poem, it’s the good poem.” I’ve since learned that, while bad poems are harmless, in that they would never deceive us, “good” poems are inherently limited and dangerous, in that they were made to please our egos, and are very difficult to come away from. Conversely, if I look at an early draft of a poem and don’t quite understand it—can’t even tell if it’s good or not—I know it has a chance, and I become interested in it.
The other thing I require in a new piece of writing is that it bear no resemblance to the last thing I’ve written, even if the last thing was groundbreaking. Art is demanding: as soon as you break the same ground twice, you’re in a rut. How many poets, even well known ones, wind up writing essentially the same poem, making the same moves, repeatedly? Maybe I’m destined to do this too, but ultimately that’s a concern for readers and critics, if I’m fortunate enough to have them. In the meantime, I owe it to myself not to be hoodwinked by the familiar, and to steer toward the strange and new.
Another form of ruthlessness comes at the other end of the creative process, when I’m putting together a manuscript. Periodically, I’ll pull up the table of contents on my computer and employ the tab and delete keys like machetes. Any title of a poem that I don’t then and there consider top notch, I’ll tab over half an inch from the others. I can’t tell you right here what “top notch” is—just to say that certain titles cling to the left margin, and others can’t, for whatever reason, hold on anymore. They’re asking to be moved, and I need to listen. These are cousins of the poems from previous books I never read in public, and wish I’d deleted when I had the chance.
Then I look at the poems I’ve tabbed over half an inch, inspecting for weak wolves in this pack, and I might tab some of these over another half inch. So now I have three ranks. The “one-inchers” get deleted—regardless of where they may have already been published. The “half-inchers” might eventually make it, but they need time. The most ruthless move of all is when I decide to wait another year before sending out a manuscript that, earlier in my writing life, I’d be too hungry not to submit. These days I’m hungry for the time to revise some of the “tabbed” poems, and compose some better ones.
All of us have bought poetry books, or record albums for that matter, knowing there’s plenty of slack in them. I’ve got a Cheryl Crow album with two and a half good songs on it, and I don’t regret the purchase. It’s what most artists do. All the more special, though, when we behold Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Carole King’s Tapestry, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, or the Beatles’ Abbey Road. In the world of contemporary poetry, there are those rare collections with zero slack—Galway Kinnell’s Imperfect Thirst and Stephen Dobyns’s Cemetery Nights immediately come to mind. And I’m especially inspired by the poets, such as Marie Howe and Jack Gilbert, who have had a capacity to wait, while any number of editors would gladly publish earlier, inferior versions of their volumes.
There are 34 poems in my newest collection. At various points, 31 other poems were included in the manuscript, then subsequently deleted. The collection is called Nameless Boy, it came out this July, and I’ve never been happier about a book. I’m not claiming it’s Abbey Road, just that I was able to keep improving it, ruthlessly.
 This essay was written in 2015, I’ve since published In America (Rattle, 2017)