If you pick up nothing else in this blog, remember this, “Poetry is the art of revision.” Yes, sometimes, very rarely, a poem will come whole. But that only will happen if your mind is open to the muse, the moment. I also believe that you must get the words on the paper when they come. Yes, each of us has their own method to writing poetry. Some let it dwell in their minds for a time, others, like me, write down the initial thought and go with it. I rewrite a poem sometimes over a hundred times. Here’s a simple checklist for revising poems. Think of analyzing your poem as being like a good mechanic who can tell what’s wrong with your car by hearing the motor run. They must have fixed a lot of cars to be able to that. The art of revising poems will become easier as you write poems.
1) Time – put the poem aside for a length of time. I read an essay by Donald Hall who advocated a year. The trick is to allow you to see the poem with fresh eyes.
2) Terseness – poetry by its definition is tight. Examine each word. Is it necessary for clarity?
3) Verbs – the most important words are the verbs. Get the most out of every verb. Beware of ‘ing’ verbs. They carry no action and tend to be less crisp than action verbs. I like to write poetry in present tense so the reader feels the immediacy. The subject matter may dictate past. Don’t use verbs to be. They are passive. Yes, occasionally you may want a section of the poem passive, but keep them few. As an example, I just rewrote a poem where I had two verbs to be and an action verb in a short stanza. I wanted the one action verb to carry the stanza, to be the most important action in the stanza.
4) Watch the adjectives. Use them sparingly. Also, don’t use adverbs. If you feel the need to use an adverb, double check your verb. Adverbs cover up a weak verb. Two maybe three adjectives and maybe at a stretch one adverb will be all you need, depending on length of the poem.
5) Title, opening and closing - The title leads the reader into the poem. The opening makes them want to read more. The closing is what they take away from the poem.
6) Senses – remember my last blog. Use more than one sense.
7) Try not to repeat words unless done for effect. Casual repetition sounds like the writer has a limited vocabulary.
8) Check end-of-line words. They should be strong words. Break lines on breath pauses or end of thoughts unless done to draw attention to that part of the poem. End-of-stanza words are also important. Enjambed stanzas draw attention to themselves. This may draw arguments from some poets who follow the rule: break where you want. Yes, you can, but why waste unusual line breaks? Save them for important places in the poem.
9) Read the poem aloud. Poetry is an aural art form. If you don’t listen to the poem, you will not know if it works. It’s the sounds in the poem that make the music. A good poem must have music.
10) Don’t fall in love with your own writing. Meaning, don’t get so attached to what I was taught to call “little darlings” that you can’t take them out of the poem. They may be the best image or line you’ve ever written but if they don’t work in the poem, remove them. Save them. I have a box under my desk where I toss unused lines. When I can’t think of anything to write, I grab a line and go.
11) The major part of writing poetry is making the reader believe you have the authority to say what you’re saying. Don’t give them an opportunity to say that can’t be true. You’ll lose them. Readers tend to start as skeptics already. This is the reason you want to watch ‘abstracts’ and ‘clichés.’
12) There are two types of rewriters: adders and subtracters. Find out which you are. I tend to put too much in at first and take out as I rewrite. Others do it the other way, start with the gist of an idea and add.
13) This may bring up more arguments, but I believe you must let someone else read the poem. Someone you trust to give you an honest evaluation/criticism of the poem. The poet doesn’t always know if a poem works. I don’t how many times I’ve sent in submissions with a couple poems I thought were perfect for the market and tossed in a throw-away (one I didn’t know what market to send it to) and have a throw-away accepted.
Understand these points can be used as you see fit. Ignore some, use others, use them in what ever order you wish. Let me also through in a few thoughts on the rewrite process.
1) Rewrite from memory. Don’t look at the old version of the poem. Chances are you will only remember the strongest images and freshest language. Build on those. I keep all versions of the poem. Your choice. I have occasionally dropped and image and gone back to reclaim it.
2) Experiment with the visual appearance of the poem, short lines, long lines, stanzas, no stanzas, etc. Each change will force you to relook at the language.
3) Circle the verbs. Make sure they are strong and are the right verbs for that poem.
4) Circle the interesting word usage and images. Can you delete the words or images around those and keep the idea of the poem? Can you make the uninteresting words and images more interesting?
5) Read the poem backwards, line by line. This allows you to find grammatical or spelling errors without getting lost in the lyrical or narrative line of the poem.
Overall, a good poem is one where all the elements of poetry are in balance, elements such as, meaning, sound, rhythm, diction, attitude, language. A bad poem is one where one of those elements overshadows the others or the poem lacks one of the elements.
Something else before I close. Sometimes poems ‘die.’ Recognize that no amount of revision can save it. Let the poem die in dignity. There are always more poems to write.
Let the dead poem drive a good poem.