27 May 2008

Self-Inflicted Wounds - Revising Poetry, Part I

You’ve got a notebook (computer) full of finished poems and wonder "What comes next?". Do you slap the verse in an envelope and rush off to the post office to submit them far and wide? Or do you carefully revise your work, and create the strongest poems possible?

I lean toward revision, 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’ lie.

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 in 1983, patiently waiting for the right moment to step into the spotlight. Poetry is a lot like cooking – some poems need a quick stir-fry, others benefit from a long simmer, preferably in wine.

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 sometimes - ax a favorite line, ar 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 cause you to slam on the brakes, pull to the side of the road, and scribble furiously on a taco stained napkin.

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. The words are 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 4 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 a 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.

Now comes the hard part, walking the tightrope between ‘almost there’, and ‘finished enough’.

PART II: Telling Little Stories

19 comments:

Pam said...

Nice piece on the importance of revision. I think this is something we all struggle with. I mostly let my poetry sit for a while before I put it on my blog. Many poems are languishing in the land of "not right". I revised one this year that I originally wrote twice four years ago and am finally happy with the end result.

Here's to letting the poem rest and to revision!

Constance said...

Pam - That's one reason I struggle with Writer's Island. I cannot write and post the same day. I have to let things gel a while, then revise until I'm mostly happy.

Then there's some poems we'll never be happy with, despite the revisions. We send them out in public half-dressed and resent them for years after. *g*

Carla said...

"some poems need a quick stir-fry, others benefit from a long simmer, preferably in wine. "
Now that is a great phrase.

Geraldine said...

Very interesting Constance and I agree, revising can make or break any written work. Too much of a good thing is too much. Sometimes it seems that our first 'impulses' choices of words, phrasing etc, stands the strongest. Great post!

www.mypoeticpath.wordpress.com

david santos said...

Good work, Constance!
have a nice day

Constance said...

Carla - Can't tell I've been cooking this week, can you? *g*

Constance said...

geraldine, sometimes you can edit the life out of a poem... but other times, you make it that much stronger. That's my problem with Writer's Island, I don't like posting off the cuff pieces. :) Takes me a few days to work the prompt.

Part two on Friday - I hope.

Constance said...

David- Thank you!

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I seldom feel like writing poetry, but when I do I usually pop out something quickly and don't do much in the way of revision. Either it works or it doesn't, and in the latter case revising the sucker won't make it any better.

Very different from my novel writing. :)

Constance said...

Gabriele - poems are no different of novels, they deserve editing too! :)

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I suppose I don't take my own forays into poetry very serious. It's more a spontaneous thing, like doodling (only I really suck at doodling while my poems at least have a combination of words that make sense, lol).

Constance said...

Gabriele - Hmm, maybe its because I was a poet before I was a novelist. On the other hand, I was an artist before either. Maybe I should doodle more? In art and writing? :)

keith hillman said...

With revisions, I don't know when to stop. Every time I revise I think I've got it about right, but when I look at it again I start tinkering. So now I don't revise very often. I post my original thoughts, which often were my best anyway.

Constance said...

Keith - sometimes I can dash something off. Usually not, though. I'm a rewriter by nature. Love to hear a flip side post from someone who can get things right the first time. Would be an interesting contrast in methods, I think. Or not. :)

SweetTalkingGuy said...

Yeah, I really like the cookery reference especially the bit about the wine!

Constance said...

sweet talking guy- yeah, but then you have to decide what kind of wine. :)

texasblu said...

This is great - I wish everyone understood that much of poetry is "first drafts". And thank you for reminding to keep your original work - I often don't, and regret it. ;)

totomai said...

i like writing poems. but sometimes revising poems make it a new poem, LOL!

but i agree with you sometimes, poems needs cooling time to further 'cook' them.

nice use of some metaphors and instances in revising a poem. learned a lot. :-)

Constance said...

totomai - Thanks! I like writing, rewriting, and re-rewriting. I'm a revision addict. :)