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Revise Your Poems And Succeed!


reviseyrpoemsUse these four revision keys to unlock the gates between you and the poem that already exists.

A poem often arrives as a persistent knocking from the heart. A mystifying or intriguing line pops into our heads. A feeling just won’t go away. One image starts greeting other images like someone arriving alone at a party, only to realize she knows others in the room.

Often when we sit down to write this poem so strong within us, we are disappointed. Something gets in the way of our transcribing the poem’s wisdom and beauty. Louise Gluck describes this in Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. She says it seems like the finished poem already exists somewhere and is like a lighthouse, “except that, as one swims toward it, it backs away.” After we engage in concentrated work on the poem, however, and we are finished, the poem reveals itself as it “was perceived to be, a thing always in existence.” In revision we come full circle and recognize our poem.

We seem to be performing a kind of magic doing this, but there are techniques to this performance. Here are four:

Key 1: Get down to brass tacks

Look for language in your draft that is summarizing or judging and change it to language with details, specifics, images.

Poems want us to use images that present direct experience. They do not want us to summarize and categorize our experience or explain why it is important and meaningful. Poetry speaks in specifics that reach us through our senses; it makes us live experience rather than just think about it. This offers deep learning about the essence of life, and that cannot be summed up or paraphrased without losing meaning.

The first step in revising a disappointing draft of a poem is to look for places in the draft where the summarizing mind has halted image-making.

Excerpt #1 (see page 13) is a stanza from a poem draft I saw recently.

I see the “safety pins on twine” and relive children’s pleasure. I experience the innovative character of childhood. But the previous lines aren’t specific enough. It’s as if the adult mind is saying “No, you don’t have to speak with the exact details of childhood. Everyone already knows them. Just say it poetically, and everyone will know what you are saying.”

Knowing childhood and living it are two different things, and the poem already in existence wants to offer experience. Childhood cannot play along a brook’s banks, but children can. The poem will get further showing children at particular play along the banks, showing where the slate came from to skip and how it could go from shore to shore–how narrow was this brook?

Key 2: Personify carefully

Check for the use of any personification (human characteristics given to non-humans) that stifles the poem’s ability to evoke experience. Our judging, categorizing, summarizing mind is very clever in pursuing its mission of protecting us. Sometimes it thinks that using personification will fool us into thinking we are reliving experience.

In Excerpt #2, another stanza from the same draft, does the personification make us live the child’s sense of the house, the trees, the brook and the footbridge? Or is the poet using it to say that her childhood seems poetic to her now? If these parts of the environment seemed so like people, then how did the child demonstrate thinking and feeling this way? Here is a way to put the experience in the child’s eyes: I bounded through the doors of the school bus, met the gaze of my house, bowed to her as the willows seemed to. The footbridge arched like the white back of cat just up from napping.

Notice how putting in the I of the school-aged child allows the personification to have as its author someone who really thought it in the moment.

Key 3: Speak metaphorically

Look for opportunities to use metaphor and simile to build the emotional landscape of your poem and at the same time offer direct experience. You can see how comparing the arch of the footbridge to the back of cat just up from napping paints an emotional scene–one of quiet safety. Let’s look at Excerpt #3 from this draft.

The brook is fragile in the image “December’s pebbled cracking shell,” and I wonder what that looks like.

Later in the poem (Excerpt #4), perhaps the stream with dead and dying carp tangled in winter branches looks like something else the child has seen and didn’t like. Dead leaves tangled in a dog’s hair, flecks of carrot in oxtail soup, dish water just before mother drains it from the sink? The right metaphor helps create a portrait of this time and event that’s more real to the senses and that lets the inner life of the child manifest.

Key 4: Remove redundancies

Last, make sure images aren’t redundant. We sing in poetry and sometimes to get a melody, we say words that mean the same thing. We must find other words and/or alter the melody just a bit if this happens.

In poems the only repetition that’s useful is lyric, the repeating of a word, line or sound over and over to build momentum. If we’re using different words that mean the same thing, it’s probably our categorizing, summarizing brain saying, “Maybe she won’t notice that we didn’t really live that moment deeply while writing; we skated over it.” The dead carp in the winter branches are a “spoiled rotting mess.” Spoiled and rotting do the same work. Think about using modifiers lightly and only if they don’t repeat meaning. Try metaphor: “three springs before the moon walk / carp came floating back bleeding / from the gills. They rotted in winter’s branches, / dregs of old stew Dad pushed away downstream.”

Drafts of poems, even when they disappoint, should be cherished. Without them we can’t search for the poem already in existence. The only map we have to the places that need more writing is the draft.

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