Beneath the Skin: Levels of Editing Poems

As I brood over my newest batch of poems, and cast a crabby eye on the previous batch, as yet unpublished, it seems to me that editing can be focused on three levels.

There’s the level of the text on the page:

– Are the verbs active and surprising enough?

– Are the nouns specific and image-based enough?

– Are there too many articles? Not enough?

– Are the adjectives and adverbs necessary and are they doing enough heavy lifting?

– Are the line breaks serving purposes?

– Do most of the lines have integrity or heft (rather than just being throw-away lines to get to the next meaty bit)?

– Is punctuation serving clarity? If you’ve eschewed punctuation, is that serving the poem?

– Have you paid attention to sound and silence and rhythm? Are they serving the poem?

– If you’re using a form, does the content serve the form or the form serve the content?

– Is the white space serving the poem?

There’s the level of intention:

Is the poem doing what you intended, expressing what you want to express? (Do you know what you are trying to express?) Is it trying too hard? Is it not trying hard enough? Have you brought enough emotional/philosophical depth to the undertaking? Are the images/experiences/ideas sufficiently and deeply, specifically personal such that they become universal?

Then there’s the level of what I think of as ambition:

We’re all writing in or responding to a literary history and tradition. Where does the poem fit in that tradition, what poems are the greatest expression of that tradition, and does your poem reach for that greatness? In other words, have you figured out the magic of the poems you most admire and have you sought in your own poem to create that magic?

And it’s always useful to pause in the entire enterprise now and then to ask “Why am I doing this? Why is my attention on this?” Even if you’re unable to answer, the question is worth asking in order to refocus, to re-center.

Mind you, I’m rarely focused and together enough to work at all these levels with any given poem, and am largely lazy anyway. But it occurs to me that this is the bar I’d like to set for myself in the editing process. And by “bar,” I mean, let me belly up to it and order a whiskey for the ordeal.

New Note_2

4 thoughts on “Beneath the Skin: Levels of Editing Poems

    • Certainly you want a generated stage that digs from the unconscious, but I guess that inquiry is part of the second stage — have I said what I had hoped to say or what I was intending to speak to. Or, as you may know my editing process challenge question that I have tormented Mary and Elaine with for years — if you aren’t sure if your poem delivers on your intentions, write for ten minutes starting with “What I’m really trying to say is….”


  1. Pingback: Beneath the Skin: Levels of Editing Poems – guest post by Marilyn McCabe – Trish Hopkinson

  2. Pingback: Levels of Editing Poems – guest post by Marilyn McCabe – Trish Hopkinson – What’s New Magazine

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