Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series
Seattle, WA., July 11, 2002
POETRY REVISION CHECKLIST
Poetry is the art of revision. Occasionally poems arrive into the world complete like a birth with no labor pains. But the vast majority of poems have to be crafted ten times, twenty times as many times and over the course of as many weeks or months as necessary. What seems complete today usually isn't. One of the keys to quality revision is to tap into the same energy and creativity that spawned the poem in the first place. Then, as poet Thomas Lux says, you render the poem using different aesthetic glasses or "lenses" such as your punctuation lenses, diction lenses, syntax lenses, etc. Below is a list that you may find helpful. Good luck!
1. PUT THE POEM AWAY FOR A DAY OR TWO BEFORE YOU REVISE. This will increase your objectivity and sense of poetic distance - very helpful for discovering what your poem is really about.
2. BE ECONOMICAL. Eliminate any "unnecessary" words. You'd be surprised how many pronouns (I, me, we, they, you, etc.) can be cut without losing clarity. Articles - a, an, the - are also prime candidates for editing. Ideally, you should ask yourself this question about each and every word in your poem: Can I cut this without sacrificing clarity or creativity?
3. VERBS: Are you getting the most for your money? Bland verbs can often be weighing a poem down. Instead of "says," would something like "screams," "whispers," "bellows," etc. be more expressive? Also, be aware of using the "ing" (continuous) form of verbs. They tend to be far less crisp and vivid than simple present tense. Simple present tense is an advisable technique for all poems when possible, as it lends more immediacy and intimacy to the writing, which allows the reader to be more of an active participant. It makes the poem feel like it is unfolding before their eyes. ADJECTIVES: Don't overdo it. One adjective is fine: two is usually pushing it; three is almost always over the top. ADVERBS: Most "ly" adverbs are unnecessary if the verb is strong enough. There are notable exceptions to this rule, such as Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;" However, if your writing is peppered with adverbs, the language would be tighter if energetic verbs did more of the work.
4. THE TITLE, FIRST LINE, AND LAST LINE are three powerful components of almost every poem. Are you getting the most bang for your buck in these three elements?
5. TRY NOT TO REPEAT WORDS unless it is done for artistic effect. Casual repetition of words indicates a limited vocabulary to the reader.
6. READ THE POEM ALOUD. It's astonishing how poems can change when you HEAR them as opposed to just READ them. I have never found a writer who disagrees with this advice.
7. DON'T FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR WRITING TO THE DEGREE that you're reluctant to cut a "good" line. If it doesn't belong in the poem, and you know it, cut it and save it for something else. Also, if the poem stumbles upon an idea that is more compelling than the original concept, don't be afraid to abandon your original destination.
8. "LEAVE 'EM WITH AN IMAGE." Poetry depends heavily on sensory language. Visual imagery tends to create a lasting impression, like a branding iron. (This directly relates to the first commandment of writing: Thou Shalt Show, Not Tell.) Another possibility is to be a bit didactic. By the end of a good poem, the reader is eating out of your hand. Without going overboard and dropping an anvil on the reader's head, this is your opportunity to reveal the theme, the lesson learned, the moral to the story. Still, it's best to be subtle.
9. OVERCOMING OBJECTIONS: Every poem is similar to selling a used car - readers are naturally skeptical. If something doesn't ring true to you, it probably won't to the reader either, which includes poetic clichés like the word "soul." This word was used extensively in Shakespeare's era and for hundreds of years after, so if you use it, proceed at your own risk!
10. LET SOMEONE ELSE READ YOUR WORK. No matter how meticulous you are, no one can pick out all the problems in their own writing. Find someone you trust artistically. Writing workshops are excellent because they provide a consensus as to what is successful and what is problematic. Friends and family members are often incapable of separating the poem from the poet and, therefore, usually make lousy critics. Find someone capable of determining what works as well as what does not. Also, it's a common phenomenon that the poem you think is great stuff isn't, and the poem you perceive as trash is really a treasure.
11. THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF GOOD WRITERS: Good writers & good re-writers. Try to determine what works best for you in the revision process - adding or cutting. Personally, I tend to throw in everything in the first draft and then edit. But many writers I know are the exact opposite. For them, the first draft is more of a blueprint or skeleton - and then they "flesh it out" later.
12. ATTEMPT TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN poems and poetry "exercises." While some poetry exercises may not be effective as finished products (i.e. they aren't publishable), they are critical to your artistic development. Writing a poem about your divorce or the death of a loved one is an important and cathartic process that will improve your writing in the long run. In other words, don't be afraid to write a bad poem. As the late poet William Stafford once said, some days you just have to lesson your standards!
13. PUNCTUATION: Too many commas, periods, semi-colons, colons etc. are like roadblocks. Some poems need academic punctuation for clarity's sake, but many don't. Punctuation at the end of lines is usually unnecessary because the line break itself accomplishes the effect of allowing the reader to stop and breathe. While some may disagree, when it comes to punctuation, my rule of thumb is: less is more.
14. LAST BUT NOT LEAST (in fact, most important of all), COMPLETELY IGNORE STEPS 1 THRU 13 during the first draft. Poetry writing is composed of two main parts: a) Writing (vision) & b) Rewriting (revision). Don't allow these guidelines to impede the flow of your imagination. Unleash your creative voice. Then, after a gestation period, think about ways to improve what you've written.