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REVISING POEMS

Here are some tricks to revising a poem that simply won’t come off the page.

  • Cut to the first action line of the poem, and delete everything above. Most mediocre poems begin by clearing one’s throat, trying to find a rhythm, an idea, and the lines are fairly limp, or even empty while you try to get something going. The first action line begins by actually doing something:

I got up

He raised his voice

She put away the dishes and started to cry

He went out and stared up at the rain

  • Cut the last lines until you find the line that raises the short hairs on the back of the neck.

If you are merely finishing a thought, don’t.

If you’re trying to find the “big idea” to close on, don’t.

If you don’t believe in your own language, the end won’t work.

If you think that by repeating your idea it will sink in better,

you have met a bore, and the bore is you.

  • Most poems are born full of hesitations, like the cries of a new-born.

What holds the language back are the stutters, the doubling of adjectives, the use of an abstract word for an image, theover-use of “I” in major phrases.

If the central issue of the poem, the situation or idea, is not

explored in every line, you are drifting, and the poem

is dead.

If you explain something, it wasn’t clear to begin with. Delete.

If you describe something, you didn’t see it in the first place.

If you tell a story, it had better be all you do.

If your lines become unintentionally rhythmic, i.e., sing-song,

or syncopated, or clanky iambic pentameter, you’ve run out of

anything interesting to say.

If you find it attractive not to punctuate, try punctuating anyway.

Cryptic abbreviations of lines that leave the point unstated,

the issue hanging, the referent fuzzy, the direction unclear,

you don’t have a poem. Throw it out.

If you keep breaking off at prepositions, you’re probably writing prose anyway. Stick to prose.

Long paragraphs mean big ideas that require a lot of context. If you’re merely writing long paragraphs that don’t need such risky structures, find the central idea and clip off the offending parasitic lines that go nowhere.

As Ezra Pound observed a hundred years ago, good verse should be as good as prose, i.e., clear, to the point, engaging. Anything that fails the prose test is so bad it will kill your poem.

Eliminate as many “the” and “a” words as possible; edit out the adverbs that are merely smudging the verb; don’t trust adjectives when you already have a clear, sharp noun to do the work.

The passive voice, where things act upon the subject, means you are writing a weepy poem, a plea for affection or forgiveness, that makes the average reader recoil. Switch to active voice and you will either find the “poem” disappears at once, or that you need an actual situation and a speaker who is in the midst of it. In other words, active voice means you need a subject or you have nothing to talk about.

Every poem has three irreducible elements: a speaker, a situation, and a response. They make up a triangle, and each angle must be in relation to the other two. A speaker who loses his car keys must not deliver a Hamlet soliloquy over it, but a witty, sarcastic, moody, jumpy wise-cracking response to his/her own carelessness. Big lyric effusions are the equivalent of a ham actor’s emoting in the wrong moment.

  • Ask yourself from time to time why you are writing poetry.

Is it because you see the unusual in the ordinary?

Are you trying to figure out the meaning of a cliché?

Do you feel an emotion that demands an exploration of self?

Do you find that a poem helps you to escape from the mundane

and trivial aspects of mere living?

You suspect there is meaning below the level of language and only

language can take you there?

Do the material things that depress us have their own beauty?

Do you think like a camera and see without thinking?

If there is no god, what does the world really look like?

If nothing is like anything else, then what is it?

Is it possible to exist without being an individual?

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen