Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, August 12, 2013


The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press, 2012)
Recently I did something I've never done before--put a poem in the Eratosphere Sonnet Bake-off. I don't tend to submit to contests, often because they seem a mug's game, particularly when they have fees. But Eratosphere's friendly competitions are free, and lots of poets who write formal poems hang out there, or used to hang out there, or now and then hang out there.

Well,  a large number of sonnets were submitted--339, I think it was--and mine was one of ten finalists and a judge's choice. All very nice. I received an astonishing amount of commentary in the forums, some of it contradictory advice.

And I discovered something in the whole process. Perhaps it was something I already knew, but it was definitely something that I knew afresh, at least. I spent days fooling with the poem, writing innumerable versions of lines, solving tiny cruxes, and so on. I addressed every possible problem.

But in the end, I preferred the earlier, flawed version for the most part. I ended by feeling even more strongly something I already knew: that a flawed, powerful poem is superior to a perfected, tidy, all-problems-solved poem. Sometimes a poem is de-natured by too much polishing and refining.

Hc/pb Thaliad (Phoenicia, 2012)


  1. Let me write a poemlette : D

    When every 'I' is dotted right
    And every 'P' is minded -
    The only thing that really matters
    Is that everything sorta rhymeded.

    And there you have it.

    Marly - YOU HAVE IT. Luckily for you, your 'raw' is finely crafted from the get go, but I love what this blog of yours is saying. I think many (if not most) artists would agree with you.

  2. Hah, hah! What a good response!

    Yes, all you have to do is look at something like "Moby Dick" to know whether energy and power can beat out flaws.

  3. Loved this and have shared it around the best I know how. Makes me think of discussions we have in class every term about the difference between airbrushed images and the real thing, and the disconnect we've learned to accept as viewers/consumers when we 'take in' art of any kind. We've been trained to want and to expect the perfect, but there's been a kickback against that for the raw and the flawed. I don't know what to do with that information, but I like that what you've said here makes it swim around some more in my brain.

  4. Hi Robin--

    You're popping up all over!

    Yes, the idea of "airbrushing" is analogous--or even the bizarre tweaking of models for ads. Many seek "a place for the genuine," but it's quite unimportant to a large number of people.

    Glad to see this one is being fb-shared by you and others... It's always interesting to see what strikes a nerve with other writers and with readers. Often it's something you didn't expect, but I imagine this issue has come up for every writer.

  5. Marly, Do you think the same principle applies to longer works, like stories and novels?

  6. I tell you, it's the same with paintings and drawings, and indeed with the process of making them. I can't tell you how many times I've returned to an initial, scrawled sketch, because every version of it made after the first, denatured the energy and put everything under too much strain. I have a theory that I've never done the perfect painting, and that all this working in series is simply a fruitful way of continuing the search for it.

  7. Hi Clive--

    Was just writing you a letter when you wrote this! (Yes, I need to go to bed...) Some news about one of our book projects.

    That's it, isn't it--the need to keep keep the energy and life in the made thing. (Hey, and I like your kind of imperfection, if that's what you call it!)

  8. Alisa,

    First I didn't see your comment.

    Then my wifi cut off, and something nefarious ate my comment. Hope I can be sensible twice in a row.

    Yes, absolutely.

    Novels are frequently loose and baggy, and they get away with it, too. I think novels have room for a lot of imperfection and lack of tidiness, and they can often seem more energetic and unsuppressed as a result. (Of course, they can also seem blowsy and ill-shaped, too.)

    Think about almost any Dickens novel for a good example. I still love, say, "David Copperfield," even though it yammers on for way too long and the book was done at some point past the middle. It would be a better book cut, but that's not the book he felt called to write, and perhaps he simply had to get to those later domestic bonds in order to write the earlier part. Who knows? In our country, "Moby Dick" is the prime example of an over-stuffed, wandering book, but it's full of passion and aspiration and beauty.

    Sometimes novels do tend toward compression and elegant structure and bottled enerby, but I don't think it's all that often. Among U. S. books, "The Scarlet Letter" strikes me as a very shapely, tightly woven piece that is full of life.

    Stories, like poems, can be very tight. But in general, I think that over-working any kind of art leads to deadness. Every painter knows about stopping at the right moment, and the unfortunate times when he/she could not resist more tinkering. I've done that in words, and thrown the thing away in the end.

    Comments on your work are interesting, but they can lead you away from the heart of things toward a surface pickiness and prissiness. We live in an age when poetry and stories are workshopped into oblivion.

    I'm teaching a workshop next summer, and mulling how to make it in some ways an un-workshop. Whatever that means...

  9. Marly,

    Well, at least you've reassured me, because the novel draft I'm working on has plenty of imperfection. Let's hope it has some energy, too :-)

    I take your point with the novels: I love Murakami novels, and I don't think they ever come together successfully, but if he tried to tie up all the crazy ends into some kind of tidy package, the things I read for would be lost. Definitely novels are sprawling and messy and if they're good enough readers just don't care. That 'good enough' probably comes from the energy. Yet my first reaction to your post was "Well, sure, but you can't get away with that with a story." Probably just reflects my own struggle with finding a balance between "raw" and "readable."

    One of the things I hate about revision, even successful revisions, is that you often have to break beautiful things in order to fix them.

    What sort of workshop are you teaching? Poetry or otherwise?

    Now I will go read the Scarlet Letter.

  10. Alisa,

    I put energy and a sense of life way ahead of seeming perfection with a novel. Definitely. So leave your warts on!

    Yes, Murakami is a good example. People who want their novels tidy won't be satisfied by him.

    And yes, stories are way less forgiving than novels.

    I tended to throw a lot away when I was younger. I lopped off the first 60 pages of "Catherwood." And jettisoned much else in my books.

    Revision... I like a lot of things about burnishing and arranging, but you're right. Breakage is essential, often. And not being able to break what must be broken can be the ruination of a writer.

    It's a poetry workshop. I haven't decided at all how to manage it.

    Please enjoy "The Scarlet Letter." I do love that book! It's on the edge of things; there's magic and witchery and transformation, but it's all in the realm of the historically possible. One thing critics often don't like is what happens to Pearl, but I think it has a pronounced function to the plot. Let me know what you think!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.