Beginning writers tend to write first drafts and call them final drafts, but as we know by now, writing a poem—or writing anything, for that matter—is a process that takes time. On rare occasions a poem will pour forth finished in its initial draft, but the large majority of the time, each poem will need to be revised. Whether you change four words, four stanzas, or one period, we can understand it all as being part of the process of revision.
The origin of the word “revision” is the Latin revisonem meaning “a seeing again.” When we revise, we see our poem again, which is to imply that we see it differently. The more time that lapses between our writing of the poem and when we look at it again, the more objectively we will see the poem. Imagine writing a poem and not looking at it for ten years. Ten years is time enough to truly see the poem differently because you are literally a different person looking at that poem. You’ve had new experiences that have influenced your person and your understanding of poetry. What you wrote ten years ago is different than what you would write now. Write long enough and you will have the experience of returning to a poem and not even remembering writing it, asking, “Is this mine?”
When we write and revise poems, sometimes we grapple with the emotional tendency to protect or defend our work, which can hamper changes that could improve our poems. With distance, we see a poem objectively; we are therefore able to make changes that improve the poem because we’ve forgotten how much work went into the poem in the first place. Our memories and feelings that the poem may touch on have also changed, and so we may no longer consider certain parts crucial to the poem.
Waiting ten years to revise a poem you wrote yesterday may be the easiest way to bring a new eye to the poem, but it’s not very practical. As writers we need to also be our best readers, capable of seeing weakness and capable of the bravery it takes to make the big changes to our poems when necessary—even when that means cutting our favorite lines, even when it means slashing the stanza we labored over for a month. This chapter will address ways to improve your ability to see a poem anew and will provide you with methods and tools to make the most of revision.
Three Goals, Four Elements
In her book The Practice of Creative Writing, Heather Sellers identifies energy, tension, and insight as being essential goals for any good piece of writing. These three characteristics make writing entertaining to our wit, rewarding to our spirit, and pleasurable to our senses. When writing lacks these things, the language goes slack, the purpose becomes hazy, and the reader disengages from the text. All three characteristics are necessary in engaging the reader and holding the reader’s attention. We don’t ever want our reader to be bored or confused.
By identifying these three important characteristics, Sellers also illuminates the main goals writers have when revising. We ask questions and revise our poems in order to increase the energy, the tension, and the insight. And we do so by tending to four main elements: clarity, language, structure, and speaker.
To achieve energy, tension, and insight, the following questions may be asked in regard to each element:
- Is it clear to the reader what this poem is about?
- Is it clear to the reader who the speaker is and to whom the poem is being addressed?
- Is it clear to the reader where the poem is taking place / what its setting (location, time) is?
- Can diction be more precise?
- Are images clearly seen?
- Does the procession of images / the order in which they occur make sense logically?
- Are there places where expansion is needed?
- Does the poem contain any clichés?
- Is the language fresh and surprising?
- Are there any places where the energy of the language goes slack?
- Are there any Latinate, multi-syllabic words that can be replaced with more Germanic, sense-inducing words?
- Is the language musical and entrancing?
- Are there places where assonance and alliteration can be increased?
- Are there any places where assonance, alliteration, or rhyme make the poem sound too sing-songy?
- Am I using too many articles and prepositions, which sap energy?
- Is any repetition of words ineffective?
- If using end-rhyme, are there places where the rhyme feels forced instead of natural and organic to the poem?
- Are there occasions where the syntax is so artificial that it could be classified what we might call “Stereotypical Indian speak”? (E.g.: You write poem good.) How about “Yoda speak”? (E.g.: Writing a poem are you?)
- Are there any uses of archaic language?
- Have I examined each word and verified that it is needed?
- Are there any nouns that would better as verbs?
- Do the lines create a pace appropriate to the poem’s subject?
- Do line breaks make the most out of image and emphasis?
- Do the lines maintain energy or cause it to slack?
- Does each character in the poem belong?
- Is the opening of the poem surprising, alluring, and energetic? Does it make the reader want to keep reading?
- Does the ending of the poem “click shut” like a box?
- Is there any content that can be removed?
- What is the emotional center of the poem? Is it complex enough to create tension?
- Is the speaker’s voice genuine in tone, or do some lines sound artificial?
- Are line lengths appropriate to the speaker’s personality and voice?
- Is it clear what’s at stake / what the risk is for the speaker of this poem?
- Is the tense (past, present, etc.) the most effective for the poem to produce energy?
- Are there places where the persona of the poem is explaining context instead of living in it?
Diagram the intent of each line of one of your poems by writing what you hope the reader will experience from each line beside the line. How does each line advance the reader’s experience of your poem?
A Revision Example
Sometimes where a poem ends up is not where you thought it would. As Naomi Shihab Nye has said, sometimes you start to write about church and end up at the dog races. You just never know—and that’s the fun of it.
The following is an example of my own poem “19-19” and its stages of revision.
When I lived in Washington State, I often traveled to neighboring states. One weekend I was in Sandpoint, Idaho, eating lunch at a downtown pub, when I was caught by a black-and-white photograph of a girl’s basketball team. The girls, maybe eight of them, wore long skirts, bobby socks, and saddle shoes. Half of them lay on their stomachs in the front row with their ankles crossed behind them. The caption beneath the photograph, which appeared in a local newspaper in 1914, summarized the day. The girls had played a game that went into overtime, but the officials ended the game at a tie because there was a dance that night. This photograph became the trigger for my poem. Here is its first draft:
It would take another period
Before a draw was declared
And the girls would get to go
To the dance. Fathers in bleachers
Cheering them on, perhaps, whishing
For sons. But the boys team lost
That night. The caption told me so.
Those words rolling along
The enlarged page on the wall
In the bar in that black and white
From 1914. This was before the war.
Five girls lying
On their bellies,
Feet crossed at their ankles, white
Bobble socks. All five hold basketballs
Under their chins.
Referees declared it
A tie. 17-17. Didn’t want the girls
To strain themselves the caption
Says. Go to the dance
Chaperoned instead. How fun
It must’ve been to be a girl
That night. Dancing in the arms
of number 24 on the boys team,
to a game of ball
on the pavement the next
afternoon. How fun to be the girl
who asked the night before the bomb
When I look back on this poem, I can see the mental and artistic moves I was making in an effort to discover the bigger something to write about. I was clearly loosened up, non-judgmental. There is word play—“whishing”—as well as a feminist tone of sorts that begins with the thought that maybe the fathers of these girls wished (whished!) they were sons, which grows into: “Didn’t want the girls / To strain themselves the caption / Says.” I was very interested in what the climate would have been in regard to gender stereotypes. The poem reports on the actual photograph and my encounter with it, describing the girls in the photograph. Then there is an imaginative leap into what it might have felt like being one of these girls, and then the realization (as the writer) that 1914 would have been before the first World War. The poem is laced with sexuality and reproduction—the break on “period,” the focus on couples at the dance. It also contains references to history, war, and gender issues. In addition, it is also has a setting and time.
After writing this poem I remember taking a break, and when I returned to the computer I read the poem, printed it out, read it again, and started to crumple it up (I don’t know why—I never do this). The poem seemed flat and cliché, forced, but as I crumpled it up I thought about the line “This was before the war,” and I smoothed out the paper. That line—“This was before the war”—was musical. And I liked how the last two lines surprised with their hard enjambment: “the night before the bomb / dropped.” I thought of the newspaper and the way we not only report information, but how we tell stories that begin to create history and identity. I thought about gossip and the way we spread those stories. And I thought of the way we imagine grandparents, grandchildren on their laps, telling family stories. I turned back to the computer and started to rewrite the poem from scratch. The following is the revision, with notes elucidating some of my thinking behind the decisions I made:
|17-17||My aim here was for the title to allude to both the game’s tie and to echo the sound of a year.|
|The game went into overtime that night.||The first line immediately sets the time and place, as well as the occasion for the poem.|
|The moon didn’t stay to witness. On top||I pull the camera’s eye outward, from the game to the moon and then inward to the mountain.|
|Of Mount Thoradour she couldn’t wait to lose||Initially a word used to refer to the game, I heard in the language how “lose” is also frequently a term used when referring to one’s virginity. The phrase echoes the themes of sport and sex already on my mind exposed in the poem’s first draft.|
|Her virginity. This was before the war.|
|Before he would leave her||Moving line by line, I tried to surprise myself with each turn of line. In this case, “leave her,” like “lose” sounded like it go a different direction. I imagined how a man leaves his wife and children.|
|And a round belly, alone, until he returned,|
|His left arm’s ghost dangling along his side like a medal.||Stanza two and no figure of speech yet? Time for a simile.|
|He was lucky, he’d tell her, the scent of her hair||This stanza zooms into the intimate moment between the couple. It also expands the senses to include smell.|
|Against his bruised cheek. The scent of her|
|Like oranges for the first time again. This||The third stanza returns us to that one night, thinking about how so many lives circle one event. I kept diction in mind here, again stressing the sexual currents in the poem. And broke the line on “score,” another word associated with both games and sex.|
|Was before the dance where her little sister, who scored|
|Four points in the game that night would sprain|
|Her ankle while dancing with George Thyman,||Sounds like “hymen.” That blatant. The next line’s image continues along this theme.|
|Her knee scraped red dripping from the split skin|
|But this was before photographic color. It kept her||The poem took this turn beyond my control. I guess I was thinking about newspapers.|
|Sister out for the rest of the season. The black|
|And white their father took still hangs on the wall.|
|Whenever her daughter sees the picture, her aunt’s||I breach time and start to imagine the impact one night can have on a life.|
|Long caterpillar body flying up toward the basket,|
|Her daughter remembers her mother pointing||In this stanza I can see myself holding my place in a sense, integrating the poem’s logic, telling the story. You can see the language become clunky, but that’s okay. The stanza lands an anchor for me so I can leap again in the next stanza.|
|To the photograph telling her that this was the night|
|She decided to be, a spirit in her mother’s womb.|
|They had to get married to legitimize the child.|
|Her sister came on crutches with Barry Lourdes.|
|This was before women could vote, before blacks||Here I really take advantage of the repeating motif of time and history, using the phrase “This was before.”|
|Had rights. The last witch trial in New England|
|Had not yet taken place or precedent in the lives|
|Of witches’ daughters. That night||And we return again to that night. The camera moves in and out through time and space, from large to small, from large populations in history to an individual in history.|
|On the court, ball circling the rim of the basket, faltering,||The largeness of the previous lines calls for contracting back to the image of something specific.|
|Then rolling in, the whole world|
|Felt right. She will remember this as she buries her sister.|
|She will remember this as she buries her face||Again, listening to the language, I sense how “bury” is associated with not only body but “face,” as well.|
|In her sister’s husband’s empty sleeve, her niece||And this touches back to the soldier in stanza one.|
|Embracing the idea of the basketball that made everything|
|Mean, everything possible, everything relate.|
|This was before the war.|
As you see, much of the redrafting of this poem happened by listening to the language and making leaps while maintaining connections as I wrote. In the actual writing process, it is usually sound that drives my poems. Here, I needed to work slower and to pay attention to the logistics of the narrative as I invented family members through time and space. This attention to explaining resulted in using a lot of Latinate words whose main intent is to relay meaning.
This second draft lay out the narrative. After reading this draft out loud, I immediately moved to a third draft to smooth out the sections where the language became clunky or Latinate. The poem went through one more revision, and then a workshop after it was basically finished. I remember several comments made in that workshop, but the suggestion that I took was to add a section in which we find out what happened to the missing mom. My professor had an issue with the metaphor of the body as a caterpillar scoring a basket, but I kept it as was because it made sense to me. The final version below was published in the literary journal Crazyhorse.
|19-19||1919 sounded more like a probable date given the subject matter.|
|The game went into overtime that night. The moon didn’t||Pulling the moon up to the first line creates personification and contrast.|
|Stay to witness, having other places to be. On top||I remember I was at a stage in my writing when I wanted to push strangeness and imagination. Here, the moon becomes a character in the narrative, too. The addition also creates a rhyme with “virginity” adding musical elements to the poem.|
|Of Mount Thoradour she couldn’t wait|
|To lose her virginity. This was before the war.|
|Before he would leave her|
|Pregnant with Sierra, alone, until he returned,||Using names helps the reader stay grounded in a poem with many characters and references to them.|
|His left arm’s ghost dangling from his side like a medal.|
|He was lucky, he’d tell her, her hair|
|Against his bruised cheek. The scent of her|
|Like orange groves for the first time again. This|
|Was before the dance where her little sister, who scored|
|The tying points in the game that night would break|
|Her ankle while dancing with George Thyman,|
|Her curious white bone pushing through the skin|
|Of this world before being forced back,|
|Sewn tight under the ivory-dry cast.||I wanted to zoom in on something and add an element of surprise and strangeness while echoing the theme of oppression in regard to women.|
|But this was before color. The black and white|
|The newspaper took still hangs on their father’s wall.|
|Whenever Sierra sees the picture: her aunt’s|
|Long caterpillar body balancing up toward the basket,|
|She remembers her mother pointing to the photograph saying|
|This was the night when the door to my womb unlocked.||The dialogue allowed me to smooth over the clunky language in the last draft, and make the moment of conception magical.|
|When they married for Sierra, her sister came|
|On crutches with George Thyman. This was before|
|The last witch trial had taken place. In dense forests||Camera zooms in and voila: images.|
|Skirts still fanned cautiously around dark fires.|
|And this was before the reunion, before Sierra’s||I felt that adding a reason for Sierra’s mom’s disappearance would help the narrative. Plus it allowed me to integrate the theme of female oppression and violence even further into the poem.|
|Mom would pull her blue Ford over to the side of the road|
|To wait out the storm. It was before the police would find her car|
|The next morning, empty, blood still wet on the steering wheel’s rim,|
|Black windshield wipers, broken, lying in the back seat.|
|This was when murder first entered the town of Pulaski.|
|The newspaper ran a story on the accident: Sierra’s face|
|In color on the cover next to a reprint of her missing mother.|
|This was before the picture of her aunt that night on the basketball court|
|Would fade. That night on the court, ball rising from the arch of her|
|Fingers, circling the rim of the basket, wavering,|
|Then falling in, the whole world|
|Seemed right—she will remember this feeling|
|When she buries the ghost of her sister’s body in an empty casket.|
|She will remember this as she buries her face|
|In her brother-in-law’s empty sleeve, her niece embracing|
|The idea of the basketball||These lines are a rewrite of language that didn’t sound right to me: “everything / Mean, everything possible, everything relate.”|
|That made everything possible, everything feel|
|Secure. The way it fell through the chute, guided||The change to the ending came from following the lead of musical language. In developing the image I thought “guided by the net,” but as I like to, I looked closer—“holes in the net.”
That the casket enters is a poetic moment that I can only assume happened because of sound—net, basket, casket—and the love of the line “This was before.” I was definitely in the zone.
|By holes in the net. This was before the casket hit the ground.|
|This was before the war.|
Creating Your Own Aesthetic
The revision process of “19-19” reflects my own poetics at the time that I composed and revised it. If the first draft was given to any other poet, the revision would be completely different. As you begin to revise your poems, the most useful approach you can take is to be aware of the decisions you are making and understand why you are making them. I hope you will see the above examples as one of many ways one may approach a poem.