I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning,
and took out a comma.
In the afternoon I put it back again.
— Oscar Wilde
Edit: Correct, condense, or other wise modify written material.
Revise: Alter or amend already-written work to make corrections or improve.
We all spend time editing and revising our poems, and I’m sure we all have certain things that we attend to as part of the usual edit-and-revise process.
I recently read an article about famous poets whose first editors were famous poet friends. Wouldn’t it be a treat to have a noted poet-mentor who would look at every poem we write and offer expert advice on how to make out poems better? Of course, we’re not all lucky enough to have poet-editors in the way that William Wordsworth had Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the way Lord Tennyson had Arthur Hallam, and the way T. S. Eliot had Ezra Pound but, this week, we do have advice from several distinguished poet friends who were generous enough to share some of their editing and revising tips with us.
Compression is one of the keys to a well-tuned poem, and one easy edit for tightening is a read-through for the notoriously almost-always-deleteable relative pronoun (that, which, whom, who). If you find one in your draft, try reconfiguring the sentence without it. You’ll probably see your line become crisper, swifter, and more effective.
Recently, I've been using some of my own lines from poems I've written in the past and incorporating these lines into my newer poems. I've suggested this idea to some of my writing students who have had success using their own favorite lines from their previously written poems and incorporating them into newer work. (I don't believe in using lines from other poets in your own poems unless you credit the poet or at least use quotation marks to show the words are not your own; using your own previously-written lines eliminates the need for acknowledgments.)
Take all the punctuation out of the poem and put it away without reading it in this state. When you take the poem out again, look for places where the absence of punctuation adds a new meaning or makes the meaning ambiguous. Consider the possibility that the new or ambiguous meaning might be the true-to-life one. Look for places where the absence of punctuation alters the rhythm or makes it ambiguous. Likewise, the tone. Stay open each time to the possibility that the change brings the poem closer to life or enlivens it some other way. Finally, restore just the punctuation marks that have passed this test and still seem to you gains for the poem.
“Sometimes, you have to kill the little darlings.” I’ve seen this quote attributed to Seamus Heaney, but I’ve also seen it attributed to numerous other writers. At any rate, it’s good advice—sometimes, you have to delete lines you absolutely love in order to make a good poem better. Something I’ve found that helps me do this is to save cut lines and cut images that I still really like. I then try and use them to help jumpstart new poems.
When I’m blundering about in a narrative and find that I’m sticking too close to the truth, whining, or beating to further death the horse of some watery epiphany, I summon the voice of a mentor—someone whose work I greatly admire. Would Thomas Lux say this, I ask myself, would Renee Ashley let something this overstated out of the corral? Sometimes it snaps me in the right direction, sometimes it just helps me toss what needs to go, even if I’m not sure what will replace it.
Gail Fishman Gerwin:
Print out your poem(s). Take them to a quiet place, away from your computer. Pretend you are someone else: an editor, contest judge, respected mentor. Read the poems aloud as if you were an audience and look for cadence while observing unnecessary details: words that halt the movement, detours meaningful only to you, punctuation, overkill. Make your changes, repeat the process, and see how the work looks and sounds.
I write mostly on the computer these days, print a couple of drafts, read them out loud to myself, make some edits by hand, go back into the computer to make those changes, and THEN find myself making even more. I also let a poem sit a day or two and revisit it to see whether I need to make further edits. One thing in particular I like to do is vary line lengths to see what works best, evaluating whether I want all the stanzas the same number of lines, or different, and also whether a longer or shorter line works both for content and sound.
Finding the right form for your poem is best left for late-stage revising. Let’s say you have a single stanza of twenty lines. You like the way it looks and reads. But before you mark it Done, explore the possibility of alternative form arrangements. Divide your single stanza into four 5-line stanzas. Live with that for a while. Then try five 4-line stanzas. Now break those 4-line stanzas into 2-line stanzas. How about 3-line stanzas? This strategy often exposes the poem’s flaws—a weak line, a redundant line, a spot where something is missing. And eventually, you’ll uncover your poem’s true form.
Poems that drive me a bit crazy are poems where the speaker says what the person being addressed already knows. You once said…, or when we walked here. This is deadening to a poem. Instead, start after that moment, or argue with the person (even if they’re dead). Keep drafting until your poem takes a turn and you discover where it really wants to go. One thing that helps me is to move back and forth in time, so that the dialogue goes beyond what has already been said.
Even with a couple of revisions, hearing yourself read a poem aloud helps. Reading to an audience is like airing a poem out and helps me hear how the poem might/should sound, so I often read drafted poems at open mics. If you edit as you read, which I do, you’ll discover better phrasing. Also, talk the poem out. What are you trying to say with the poem? Do you say what you meant? Talking the poem out with another poet, or even non-poet friend, who doesn’t mind listening to you often helps.
Remember, a poem is a time machine you are constructing, a vehicle that will allow someone to travel in their own mind, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while to get all its engine parts properly working.
An early draft of a poem often takes a couple lines to rev up to full speed—and likewise it may drift along for a few extra lines at the end. When revising, take a close look at your opening and closing. Would the poem be stronger if you cut lines 1-2 and start with line 3? Could you delete those last three lines for a more surprising ending? Try folding the page over at the top or the bottom and see how it changes your poem. Your poem may actually be shorter than you thought.
Michael T. Young:
Sometimes a poem feels clunky, it’s just hitting some wrong notes no matter how much I revise. I rework the poem but as a prose poem. I give myself the breathing space to write anything that comes without the restrictions of stanza and line breaks. Then I rework it again to find the stanza and line breaks after having found the images and diction necessary to the material. Giving myself that freedom helps find the movement needed to hit all the right notes in the final poem.
… and one from me with a quote from Mark Twain (’cause no one else mentioned how pesky adjectives can be).
Adjectives are descriptors and, in general they lack the power of nouns and verbs. Often, adjectives are just spectators at a prizefight, the real power and punch come through nouns and verbs. In fact, adjectives sometimes duplicate the meaning of the nouns they describe and are therefore redundant. Too many adjectives can ruin an otherwise good poem. So, as Mark Twain wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.”
Guidelines & Additional Tips:
1. The activity for this week is to revise and edit one or more of your already-written poems using the tips provided above to help jumpstart the process.
2. Look at each of the poems with which you choose to work this week and identify a phrase, sentence, or line that represents the poem’s emotional center. What have you included (and should delete) in your poem that’s really meaningless in relation to the poem’s emotional core?
3. Don’t lose sight of the whole poem while editing the particular. As you prune your poems, make sure that every word, every, phrase, clause, and sentence is necessary.
4. We all know what we mean when we translate thought into written language, but what we actually write on the page isn’t necessarily what we intended (and that includes the typos we don’t see precisely because we “see” what we intended and not what we typed). Be sure to “listen” to whatever spell checking program you have on your computer (they’re not always right, but a heads-up here and there can be a good thing.
5. Keep a copy of your originals and compare them, line-by-line, with your edited versions.
And ... here's a related poem by Wendy Rosenberg for you to enjoy.
By Wendy Rosenberg
To renovate a poem
gut your kitchen first,
then sit in the middle of
the rubble and imagine
words climbing a trellis
outside the window.
Notice which words fall
to the ground when the
winds change. Invite a few
inside to light up the dark corners.
Let the boldest ones paint a
fresh coat of phrases over dull walls.
If your poem still needs a
shelf to house some sadness,
leave the doors off.
William Butler Yeats wrote, “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”