My favorite definition of “revision” is “to see again.” You are likely to envision the poem, over and over again, maybe with broad changes or simple tweaks, in the process of turning a freewrite or draft into a crafted work. Once you’ve used 10 Easy Tips to Revise Your Poems to make a first pass at your draft, you’re ready to start engaging in deeper revision.
In the first pass, you looked for surface level issues and easier fixes (at least to spot, if not to execute):
- what images and language were strong and what needed to be cut or improved,
- where you had too much or not enough exposition and detail,
- what was concrete and abstract (and whether or not it should stay that way),
- if the poem had a natural form that could be tightened,
- and how the rhythm and sound flowed.
So once you’ve taken that first inventory, seen again what you have written, what can you look for next?
- Content – As it’s written, what is the poem about? If someone were to describe the poem in one sentence, what would they say? Is that what you wanted to express? Is your message spelled out too explicitly? Are you being poetic —otherwise known as vague? As Natalie Goldberg suggests in Writing Down the Bones, “If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details” (165).
- Mood/Tone – What mood does your poem convey? Is it light? Pensive? Funny? Full of longing? When you imagine someone else reading the poem, what tone of voice would they use? Angry? Sarcastic? Serious? Look to your adjectives, nouns, and verbs. If you see a pattern, you might find yourself changing more generic verbs like “laugh” into “cackle” or “giggle” or “guffaw.” Okay, probably not “guffaw,” though you never know. Try this: Go through your poem and take out all of the adjectives and adverbs as Mark Twain used to do (Creating Poetry, 195). Now, add them bac with a specific tone in min—or maybe you’ll find that they were unnecessary and that by using concrete nouns and vivid verbs, the modifiers are unnecessary.
- Pace – Look at your line breaks and punctuation. How do they lead the reader through the poem? Where are you asking them to pause or to stop? Is it breathless? Plodding? Does the speed vary? What drives or leads the reader through the poem?
- Line Breaks/Meaning – Is there any tension in the lines? How does the line read differently than a sentence or a phrase? Is meaning lost because the lines are too short to linger over? Are your lines cut into phrases? Sometimes the result is that you have lost a double meaning where the language seems to read one way and then the meaning shifts as one gets to the next line(s). Did you break the line where you did for a reason? What was your intent? Are you accomplishing it? Try this: Save your draft and then copy it into another document. Take all of the line breaks out so the poem is formatted like a paragraph. Now break the lines again with a singular focus: meaning, pace, sound—sometimes this may be rhyme, but in contemporary poetry, mostly it is not. Compare the versions of the poem. Repeat with a different focus.
- The Soul of the Poem – Just as the body is more than organs and teeth, the poem is not strictly made up of words and line breaks. It is possible to wreck a poem with reworking it, to completely lose the greater meaning or feeling in quibbling over sound devices or an image. Just as most mothers do, I believed my son was a gorgeous baby, not one of those grandpa-looking wrinkled things with alien-black eyes. Now, when I look at photos of him as a newborn and they creep me out a little bit. The thing was I didn’t fiddle with him. I just sat with him, held him, gazed into those inhuman eyes. In revision, it is easy to get so lost in the parts, that you lose the poem. Take time between editing passes. Come back with loving and critical eyes (maybe on different days). Save drafts of each version so if you realize you’ve lost something, you can retrace your steps to find it. And don’t be afraid to sit down and write a brand new draft, taking the core idea and starting over. See how it compares. Maybe you’ll even merge the two.
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And please share your strategies with me. What does a deep revision look like for you?
Photo by Silent Tomrrow