November 9, 2010

How to Revise Poems

Re-vision is an opportunity to come to the emerging work with attention and deliberation.   The rough draft will reveal things to the attentive writer about how to best develop and hone the poem.  No rules are hard and fast; these are simply guidelines.   The goal at the end of revision is to have every element of the poem (the voice, the images, the metaphor, the word choice, the punctuation, the line and stanza breaks) all choices that have been made for the best possible effect.

Paul Valery wrote that the language of prose is meant to fall away once the meaning is delivered.  In a poem, the language is a physiological device that recreates the breath of the writer in the reader.   Each time the poem is read, the experience is created anew and can reveal new meanings.   

1.  Begin with a strong line.   A sense detail or an action is best.   It must be arresting in some way:  either make it musical or sensual or surprising or make it an action. 

2.  Poems are a pattern language.  Sound patterns or visual patterns are pleasing.  Look for ways to enhance the emerging patterns of a first draft.  Pay attention to vowel sounds, consonant sounds, almost rhyme, rhyme and rhythm and repetition.  The best way to hear this is to read it aloud.  Consider the overall shape of the poem.   Repeating words greatly emphasizes those words.   (So make sure you aren't overusing the pronoun "I" or the word "the.")

3.  Focus.  If you begin with a metaphor, continue to stay in the metaphor throughout the poem.    Avoid simile. It just isn’t as effective.   Writing persona poems is good practice for staying inside a metaphor.   

4.  Make sure that you have employed the five senses.  Good poems are rooted in the body.   Write from your heart, and write about what is really important to you.   You are creating an emotional experience.   Longing belongs in a poem, but not preaching.

5.   Consider context, juxtapositions, simultaneous occurrences, the landscape.  Consider some storytelling conventions, like journey or the rule of 3 or circular forms.   Consider mythology and Biblical story.  Is your poem somehow similar to a wider cultural story?   

6.   Use active verbs and SPECIFIC, concrete detail.   Vivid description.  Avoid the use of the words "is, are, was, were, has, had, have, been, seem, being."   In words, create a vivid picture in active voice.  Like Mary Oliver says, nouns and verbs are worth 50 cents, adjectives and adverbs are worth far less.   They can clutter up the poem, deaden it.   Try to build tension into the lines (maybe by the use of opposites or juxtapositions or by the use of an antagonist; consider what the poem is up against or irresistibly drawn to).  Evoke a feeling, but don’t tell the reader how to feel.  

7.    Stanzas are like paragraphs.   Stanza breaks offer an opportunity to cross time and space, to free-associate or free-fall, surprise the reader.  

8.   Line breaks offer an opportunity to make the poem more evocative.   See if you can increase the meanings.  Sometimes ambiguities enhance the poem.   The end word of a line, a stanza, and the entire poem is important. 

9.   Value the resonating image.   Sometimes an image lingers or resonates for a writer.   Use
this and keep it central to the poem.  Let the poem lead you.  Listen to the work.   Allow yourself to work intuitively.   

10.  Often beginning poets can be heavy-handed with the conclusion. Do not summarize what you just said in the poem.  Don't tell the reader what to feel.  End strong.  Think of your last line as a phrase of music.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the excellent list! I love looking for different approaches to revision. Poets need more resources like this. #5 on this list is definitely one of the most important things I consider. What is that larger cultural context? How will this draft of the poem be useful? So helpful. There’s a piece on the Etched Press blog on another five revision strategies to consider before sending work out into the world. I highly recommend that as well:

    Thank you!