What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision

So, you are overcome with the urge to pen a poem. You were inspired by the sunrise, sunset, your last date, the neighbor’s new puppy, the snow, footprints in the sand, a romantic movie, or [fill in your favorite inspiration here]. Words flow, flowery, full of adjectives and adverbs.

Alternatively, that last political debate got to you. You’re incensed by Trump, Clinton, Cruz, Sanders, Rubio, [choose your least favorite politician]. The latest news from Syria or Afghanistan inflames you, the last shooting disarms you. You are driven to your keyboard to unleash the rant to end all rants, damn it, and make sure they (whoever they are) see reason before it’s too late. Then you shape that rant into quatrains or couplets or a long train of free verse.

Either way, you’ve gotten your thoughts into a form you now call a poem.

We all know that great feeling of brainstorming a piece of verse, getting down all those things that have us swirling. And sometimes it feels like we have to send it out right now, before it cools off, before is loses its glow and we lose our nerve. A writer might be so anxious to call themselves a poet that they haven’t taken the time to read, to observe and settle into their thoughts, to probe and probe some more until a gem is discovered. The heat of the moment sweeps them away and takes their ability to discern good verse from knee-jerk reaction along with it.

Creating a decent poem is a process. Sometimes, it’s a long process that involves intense immersion in some relevant piece of the larger cultural conversation that goes on around us every moment. For example, we get plenty of submissions here at Gyroscope Review that recap some current event. We have received poems about hunger, poverty, refugees, David Bowie’s death, technology, and politicians. Those submissions mean something to the poets who sent them, but often those same submissions get rejected because they don’t do anything more than tell us what we already read online or in newspapers or heard on the evening news. They don’t take the reader deeper into a space where thoughtful and delicate teasing out of what this all could mean happens. Why is this important? Why has it captured the poet’s attention and why should the reader care? What are the larger metaphors and historical lessons? What does this say about humanity?

We also get plenty of submissions about love and loss and death and grief. Poets lay themselves open, reveal their hearts’ desires both realized and thwarted, and send it off. What often kills the piece for us is that there is nothing new in that poem. Nothing we haven’t seen. And then we wonder whether the submitter has read widely on these topics to see how other poets handle them. What separates the rejected work from the poems that see publication?

Revision. Revision. And revision.

Successful poems reflect life, and they also question it, probe it, turn it over and compare different facets. They keep their focus, but draw from a range of experiences and images. Successful poems respect the reader by offering ideas and feelings without telling the reader what to think. This does not happen in one sitting.

How do you get a poem from brainstorm to publication? Here is one suggested path.

1. After your brainstorm, let the poem sit for a while.

2. When you return to the piece, read it through and ask yourself what you want to focus on. You might have more than one poem in that brainstormed piece.

3. Do you need to do any research about your focus? This is particularly relevant when writing about current events. Make sure you know what you’re talking about and you understand the backstory. This can only add depth to the evolving poem.

4. It’s okay to throw in everything about that focus and then choose the strongest bits as you go through the revision process. Choose your imagery carefully and deliberately.

5. Once you have the images and overall idea you want to include, work on that language. Strong verbs. Few adjectives or adverbs. Take a hint from the poet Mary Oliver, who said, “Every adjective and adverb is worth five cents. Every verb is worth fifty cents.” (p. 90, A Poetry Handbook. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1994.)

6. Does the language you chose fit the topic? Is it understandable, clear? Obscure poems don’t pull readers in. Poet Ted Kooser puts it well: “Poetry’s purpose is to reach other people and to touch their hearts. If a poem doesn’t make sense to anybody but its author, nobody but its author will care a whit about it.” (p. xi, The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.)

7. Look at the line breaks and white space. Does the way the words flow mimic the feeling you want? Have you allowed space for the reader to pause and let the words sink in?

8. Does your ending answer or somehow return to what you offered up in the beginning of the poem? Is it strong or does it sort of dribble away?

9. Let the poem sit some more and return to step four.

10. Let someone else read the piece and comment. Do not freak out. We all need honest readers who will tell us what works and what doesn’t. Better for a reader to point out gaps and necessary tweaks than for an editor to reject your work; editors usually don’t tell you why.

11. Let the poem sit some more and return to step four.

12. Keep revising until it feels right. Mary Oliver claimed to revise her work 40-50 times. Don’t be afraid to toss out a poem that isn’t working.

13. If you’ve gotten this far, then what are you waiting for? Find somewhere to submit your revised work.

There are online writers communities and plenty of books that talk about the writing process, especially revision. All you have to do is Google either one. But the real work of writing happens when the writer is alone with the poem, when there is quiet space and time for creativity to show itself without competing for attention. Don’t be afraid to disconnect from the very world about which you write.

You just might surprise yourself.