So I plastered a bunch of my thoughts about revision last week and the week before. But there’s a terrible secret I’ve kept tight to my chest. And that is that I don’t really think anyone can teach us how to revise our own poems.
You can try all these ideas and techniques. But there is no way to really know when a poem has achieved something close to its potential except by writing and reading and writing and reading and developing your own sense of what you want your work to do.
And by reading, I mean, reading like a practitioner. That is, when we meet a poem that affects us, we need to take it apart and figure out how it did its magic. And we need to do this over and over again with all kinds of poems. And we need to try the tactics, retry, try something else.
And I believe — I have to believe — by doing this over the course of who the hell knows how long, we’ll develop some instincts, some skills, and some confidence. And when the poem isn’t living up to itself, something in us will feel uncomfortable, our skin will not fit us quite right, our ears will flick forward and back at some sound that’s not quite right, some voice inside us will whisper, “Sorry, you just don’t have it yet.”
And we’ll sigh and unscrew the carefully packed poem, pull all the guts out, and start all over again, adding this, taking away that, turning the pieces around, and putting it together again, then sitting with it to let those hard-won instincts have their say, their little jabs and hmms.
I’ve written often over the years about my grappling with the revision process, ways I’ve approached it, ways I’ve been confounded, approaches I’ve read about and tried, ones I’ve read about but have been too lazy to try. I decided to go back through all the posts I could find that talked about revision and distill the barest skeleton of stuff so as to create a sort of quick-and-dirty revision cheatsheet. This is not to say I’m an expert, it’s just to say here’s some stuff I think I’ve learned along the way that maybe you’d find useful too. Or not. Whatever. Anyway. Here’s some stuff.
Remember: look for the shine and sheer away what’s getting in the way, or carve it so that the light and shadow work how you want them to.
Remember: it’s a spiral process. Start anywhere. You’ll be back there again eventually, but hopefully from a slightly different vantage point.
Remember: time is the best editor.
But here are some ways to break it down:
– Are the verbs active? Are they surprising?
– Are the nouns specific? Are they image-based? Or are they abstract or calling too much attention to themselves with their fancy multisyllables?
– Are there too many articles? Not enough? Could you gain specificity and heft by changing an “a” to a “the” or vice versa?
– Are the adjectives and adverbs necessary and are they doing enough heavy lifting?
– Is punctuation serving clarity? If you’ve eschewed punctuation, is that serving the poem?
– Is the tone right for the subject matter? Or wonderfully wrong for the subject matter?
– Have you read it aloud and does it flow? Are there sticky spots? Clunky sections?
– Are you paying attention to assonance, alliteration, onomatopaeia? Do the repetitions of sound work for the poem’s intentions?
– Have you paid attention to rhythm? Does it have an interesting beat and flow?
– If you’re working in meter, does it get established, then break in such a way that is interesting and that serves the meaning of the line?
– Are the line breaks serving purposes, in terms of ideas, rhythms, sound, controlling the movement of the poem?
– Do most of the lines have integrity or heft (rather than just being throw-away lines to get to the next meaty bit)?
– Do most of the lines start strongly? Do most of the lines end strongly?
– Is the white space serving the poem?
The Look on the Page
– If you’re using a form, does the content serve the form? Does the form serve the content? Would imposing more control enhance the effect of the poem? Does the poem need less control, a little wildness?
– Have you provided some silence such that you are controlling the roll of the poem down the page, in the mouth, out in the room?
– Is there too much information? Could you let the reader sit with some ideas by giving them some white space?
– Is there a place of energy in the poem that might show you how to trim around it, or how the rest of the poem might need to be energized to meet it? Or maybe your poem really should be headed in the direction of that energy, and more writing is needed.
– Does it start at an interesting place/moment/idea/emotion? Or have you hemmed and hawed some and the poem might be stronger by starting several lines down where things are really happening?
– Does it come to some ending so thoroughly that you can hear a far thud? Is it wrapped up so tight in a bow that it’s face is getting red from trying to breathe?
– Does it wander off such that the reader is left wondering why they bothered to follow along?
– Does it make sense; does it make glorious nonsense?
The Order of Operations
– Does the flow of images/ideas/sounds/silences make sense? Or does it make glorious not-sense?
– Do you ask too much of the reader to try to follow the leaps and bounds? Is there enough of a through-line of thought to keep the reader going?
– Does the title you’ve chosen really suit the poem? (Or does it convey what you thought you were writing about but the poem had its own ideas?)
– Does it do any useful work, like situating the reader, or setting a tone, or giving a hint as to what’s ahead?
– Does it add interest and vitality or is it merely sitting there? If you encountered this title, would you bother to read this poem?
Okay, this is kind of big. If a poem is an inquiry, you don’t necessarily have to know exactly where you’re going, or where you’ve ended up, but you kind of have to settle on what your intentions are and what direction you think you’re headed.
– Do you know what you’re trying to do with this poem? Or are you muddled and therefore the poem is muddied?
– Do you know too much? That is, did you already decide on your arrival before you even embarked on the journey? Where’s the mystery and thrill of the unknown?
– Are you trying to strong-arm the poem to go someplace it doesn’t want to?
– Are you trusting the reader to grasp your metaphors and the journey of the poem? Are you asking too much of the reader to leap over chasms and wade through confusing thickets?
– Is this a poem in which something is at stake for you?
Play It Out
I’ve made it all sound very systematic, but really, I find I do revision best as a form of play. Here are some ways to play:
– Rewrite it backwards to try to get some insights or suprises.
– Break it apart and put it back together differently. It’s fun to do this physically: scissoring up the poem and taping it back together.
– Underline all the places in the poem that have energy or something special going on. Take everything else out and start with those underlined segments. Write on.
– Take out entire sections one by one and see what’s left.
– Plot the logic of the arguments/analogies to make sure they are solid.
– Change the voice: if it’s in first person, change it to third, e.g.
– Change the time: if it’s in past tense, change to present, or future!
– Ask a poet friend to take a look at it and try the edits suggested, no matter how off-base you think they are.
– Try combining two poems into one.
– Write a new beginning.
– Write a new ending.
– Pick your favorite line and write a whole new poem off of that.
– Try a new title. Sometimes the gap between the title and the text is telling. Sometimes you have to write to the title. Sometimes you have to re-title to the text.
– Insert a diversion. Follow that diversion out — does it lead you back to the original poem, or to someplace new and interesting that is still in keeping with the original? Or have you ended up writing a new and wholly separate poem?
– Do a writing exercise starting with the thought: What I’m really trying to say is…
– Put it away for a month. Better, two months.
And sometimes, you just have to give up and start a new poem.
I swore off workshops long ago for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, but as I’d been brooding over this particular poem for a while, and as isolation breeds a kind of insanity, I signed up for one.
It was not as bad as I’d feared it could be, although not as useful as I had hoped, but I did get one takeaway, which is, perhaps, all one can realistically hope for. It was worth the price of admission, but perhaps not entirely worth the hours of sitting staring into zoomland.
And I share it with you here for free. Cuz that’s the kind of gal I am.
The editing (or “revision”) process is often one in which I start with the idea of finding the weaknesses in a poem and getting rid of them. The process was reframed for me in that workshop in this useful way: Find the shining points in the poem and clear away anything that may be getting in the way of the shine.
It is very useful, this idea that the elements of a poem stand next to each other and cast shadows. You may want the shadows. You may not. I am grateful to be reminded to understand how the elements of a poem are standing together, what shadows they cast, what is illuminated and what is obscured by those shadows, and to take control of how light and shadow passes through the poem. You may want some, I think — some “chiaroscuro” in a poem, clarity/obscurity play of elements. But it needs to be carefully controlled so what is highlit is meaningful, what is shadowed is purposeful.
This may involve all the usual elements of revision: trimming, cutting, rearranging, but by thinking about it in terms of light and shadow, I’m able to bring a different kind of attention to the process, like thinning a grove of trees so as it strengthen the diversity of species, or dividing my vast, tangled patch of iris to let it thrive. So thanks for that, workshop.
As for the rest of the story, the workshop did give me the impetus to wade back in to the poem. I knew trimming would be advised, and some wholesale deleting of stanzas. A friend happened to be in the workshop and also had some specific advice re: my use of pronouns (more on that in another post) and the ending, as well as some need for clarification. So I took all that in hand and headed in, taking down trees.
Then I realized I could move stanzas around for logic of thought process.
I took out the ending. I wrote another one. Took that out.
Wrote a different beginning. Took that out.
Changed the pronouns.
Retitled the poem. Reretitled the poem. This process is useful for establishing my own understanding of the poem’s intentions.
I tried to walk away for a while. But kept thinking of new things to try. I put back in some things I took out earlier on.
All this changing led it to somewhat change direction. Okay, I thought, let it turn, and I’ll see where it goes.
It didn’t really go. I realized I was now writing things in to force it to go in this new direction. I felt like I was forcing the poem away from the thinking that was the impetus behind it in the first place. I took them out.
Finally, I went back and reread the original version of the poem. You know what? I kind of like it.