More on Revising Poetry

poetry revision

Revising your poetry. You’ve got a notebook (computer) full of finished poems and wonder “What comes next?” Do you slap the results in an email and rush to submit them far and wide? Or do you carefully revise your work, and create the strongest poems possible? 

Revising poetry is the way to go, more so now that I know the depth of my not knowing. It’s a rare poem that can make the leap from thought to publication without an important stop in between. Poems benefit from being changed, rearranged, and recreated. Almost every poem can be tightened. We can make a poem better, stronger, faster. But remember to save your first draft, because sometimes an overzealous poet can revise the life right out of a poem. It’s a fine line, and the more you practice tightening your words, the easier it is to know where the boundary between ‘mostly finished’, and ‘dead horse’ lies. 

Cool Your Jets

Most poems DO benefit immensely from a cooling off or waiting period. This can be as little as a day, or as long as years. I still have poem pieces I wrote 20 years ago, patiently waiting for the right moment to step into the spotlight or be harvested for ideas. Poetry is a lot like cooking – some poems need a quick stir-fry, others benefit from a long simmer, preferably in wine. Don’t forget to pour yourself a glass.

Revision is more in-depth than rearranging line and stanza breaks or consulting a thesaurus for word replacement. Revision means you have to be cruel—ax a favorite line or brilliant image that just doesn’t work with THIS poem. Hence the cooling-off period. You need to examine your poem with a critical eye, a thing that’s difficult to do when you are still enthralled with your words. Put the poem in a hermetically sealed box until its pitiful cries for love fade away.

Work from the assumption that what you really meant to say in the poem is contained somewhere within that first draft. You are an archeologist, intent on coaxing treasure from dirt piles. Revision should cleanse and fine-tune your poem until it is close to the trigger that causes you to slam on the brakes, pull to the side of the road, and scribble furiously on a taco stained napkin. 

Multiple Fly-Bys

First revision pass through your poem, remove the extraneous. You know what it is. The excessive thens and buts and ands dragging your piece down, distracting from the meat of your work. They are usually unnecessary. Get rid of them. Then rework the lines word removal made off-kilter. This will be an ongoing job, rewriting to smooth over what you took away. The upside is rewriting can make the poem better. Tighter. Use strong words at the ends of lines. Like a properly made bed, you should be able to bounce a quarter off the surface. 

Study your poem. Which lines, images, words are stronger, which convey the emotion you want to carry to the reader? Which attached themselves as carry-on baggage? If your poem is four stanzas long, is there a weak stanza, one not pulling its weight? Maybe the poem would benefit from a stanza-ectomy. On the flip side, perhaps you’re shortchanging yourself, and the poem needs more room to breathe, to tell its story. Do you have too many ideas going on? Unless it’s an epic, generation-spanning ballad, most poems direct us toward a moment in time, the awareness of an experience, the illustration of a slice of life.

You’ve completed your first pass through the poem and survived. Unnecessary words were eliminated, stanzas were examined for flab, ideas were weighted and measured. You’re a revising poetry champ!

Now comes the hard part, walking the tightrope between ‘almost there’, and ‘finished enough’. It comes back to the age-old question, are poems finished or merely abandoned? That’s up to you to decide.

More on Revision

Looking for a Few Good Revision Tips?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision

Telling Little Stories

Outside Links by the Numbers

5 Ways to Revise Poems

Fifteen Poets on Revision

13 Ways to Revise a Poem