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poetry editing

After writing a poem (never during or before the poem), ask yourself these questions:

1. Why is my lineation the way it is and is that the right shape for the poem?

2. Are my images predictable? Do shadows fall? Do I express myself in idioms and cliches rather than in a true voice. Most often the idioms we employ without thinking are old metaphors/personification/figurative parts of speech we have forgotten are metaphors, personification and figures: shadows fall, winds moan, daylight breaks, thoughts leap, ideas “turn” in the mind. How do I edit these from my poem and either leave them out or find a less familiar or predictable way of saying them? If I am aware of them as idioms, how do I have fun with them and let the reader know I am aware of them as such?

3. Am I over-determining the reader’s experience of the poem through
A. Overt insistence upon its meanings?
B. Lack of balance between image and rhythm (or absolutely no relation between them)?
C. Tagging the poem as belonging too fully to one school of poetry or another?

4. Does my poem veer off it’s track and head in directions I did not intend, and are these directions something I should follow or edit?

5. Are my end stopped and enjambed lines purposeful? Do I tend not to vary them enough, and are the terminal words of my lines often muffled or without strength?

6. What is my poem saying at the sub-meaning level: through syllables, through sonics, through word choice, through the neutral, laudatory, or dyslogistic registers of speech that might either contradict, undermine, or confuse the overall effect?

7. Do I force a line to stay because I like it–even if it does not match up with the other lines and is destroying the overall effect of the poem?

These are questions I tell my students to ask during the revision process. I also advise “retakes” in addition to revisions. A retake works as follows:

1. If the poem was written in a skinny line, you try it in a long line.

2. If the poem is written in verse paragraphs or irregular (Aleostrophic) stanzas, try restructuring it in tercets or couplets, or some other regular and consistent stanza pattern–just for the hell of it.

3. If the poem uses imagery congruent with mood (grey sky and dead leaves for grief), change that aspect completely and re-write it so that the loss is incongruent with the weather. “My husband is dead. Outside, relentlessly sunny L.A. bleats on.” Play with expectation. Write the poem in second person. Take out all but two lines and rewrite it with those lines being the only parts left. And on and on.

It is good to let students know why poets use skinny, or medium sized, or long lines. For example, the skinny line is used when

A. The poet does not like sentences that are end stopped or wishes to play sentence off against incremental fragments to create grammatical ambiguity (amipholy) so that a whole poem might be only one or two sentences, or only sentence fragments.

B. When the poet wants a single effect, and does not want any one line to draw attention to itself (Donald Justice in “Bus Stop,” Williams in “Locust Tree in Flower,” etc. etc).

C. When a poet wishes to be pithy, aphoristic, economical (Jabez book of questions, mottos, epitaphs, epigrams)

D. When a poet has read other poets who write skinny poems and is imitating them without knowing why exactly.

E. To make each word or a few words isolated by the white space and create a certain feeling for the poem as an object.

F. To slow down the reader by making him or her consider each isolated word, or to make the poem read like a quick antidote:

It’s a strange courage
you give me
Ancient star.

Shine alone
in the sunrise
towards which
you lend no part.

This could be expressed in prose as:

it’s a strange courage you give me ancient star; shine alone in the sunrise towards which you lend no part.

But, being expressed this way, it loses its effect of ceremony and becomes mere statement.

G. All of the above.

As for the medium line,

A. The poet might be writing a free verse line that contains a rhythmic ghost of blank verse and stays between eight and fourteen syllables (most of Jane Kenyon).

B. The poet wishes to practice aesthetic modesty, and not draw attention to his or her line, but to take a middle road, and let other aspects of the poem matter.

C. The poet wishes to give the effect of being sane, and steady, and somewhat measured.

D. The poet likes symmetry and does not wish to be out of balance.

E. The enjambments exist but are kept in control by being more or less of even length–not too long or too short.

F. Line is not one of the chief considerations of the poet at that moment.

G. All of the above.

Reasons for a long line:

A. To convey a sense of speechifying, oratorical address, or majesty. Often found heavy with anaphora, listing, enumerating (as in Whitman, Ginsberg)

B. Poet wishes to be mock-epic, and to tweak or make comedic use out of the epic length of the line– to speak of small insignificant things in “monumental” ways.

C. The poet wishes to give the reader a sense of expansiveness.

D. All of the above, depending on the situation.

Reasons for a line of varying length (undulating lineation):

A. The poet is a novice and does not know the importance of line length.

B. The poet is moving with his thoughts which vary in length and the shape of thought, its pattern is varied.

C. The poet is playing with line against sentence structure.

D. The poet wishes not to enjamb and so end stops each line no matter how much the line lengths vary.

E. All of the above.

I give examples of each, and then I discuss how a poet might get trapped by being known for a certain type of line (skinny equals Creeley, Long equals Whitman or CK Williams, medium equals many poets out of MFA programs, and on and on). In this case, the formal requirements of line are imposed and may or may not fit the needs of the poem at hand. They may also determine what sort of poem that poet writes and lead him to live only in his comfort zones. I suggest that the student take a measured poem by Jane Kenyon and write it out in different ways to see if it changes the effect. This is a way of making the student more conscious of his or her own aesthetics. I tell them some teachers just impose line length or type of line without being open to exception. They are not teachers; they are propagandists, and most poetry programs have a shared or implied poetic vision that narrows what can or can’t be done there. Thank God poetry is not as narrow as its experts.

Neutral, dyslogistic, and laudatory registers of speech:

Using Bentham’s tri-partite registers, we can look at a poem as inhabiting different registers of speech. For example, someone who is above average in looks might be described in laudatory (a knockout) neutral (attractive) or dyslogistic (bimbo) terms, depending on the intentions and attitude of the speaker. Some registers will not even permit certain subject matter to exist (blazons are not too popular in circles where the objectification of the body is considered a sin, though the bible contains the most famous blazon of all). Others seal the poem in an attitude of disdain or gushing praise. Still others registers of speech, take on the white middle class voice of objective observation and cool detachment. This is when they are consistent, but often, new poems have lines that ring false to the rest of the poem, that contradict the overall tone. Mixed registers can be amazing if the writer knows what he or she is doing. Otherwise, they come off as mistakes, as a sudden slip in tone, or voice. I encourage students to become aware of their tone, their borrowed tones as well as those natural to their own train of thought (a train too often derailed by a student poet assuming a tone that is not organic to his or her own mentality and which they cannot properly parrot). I often have students learn idiomatic, overly familiar phrases and have fun with them:

Shadows Fell (Jennifer Townsend)

Shadows fell.
For the last three hours
they had been sucking down the bucolic scenery
like there was no tomorrow,
(and, for them, of course, there wasn’t).
Now they were stumbling,
tipping over the lawn furniture
making idiots of themselves,
touching the asses of men’s trophy wives,
and the wives’ trophy men,
fondling the party favors, kissing
until one lay down with the dog
and did not rise.

When night came, I found a sticky
substance on my hand.
I knew then that I was getting old
and must remodel my kitchen.
But how?
It’s the big questions that undo us.
The question took off my shirt
kissed my nipples
rubbed my crotch. Avocado, or Mauve?
Under the soft pressure of the question’s hand
I caved. Surrendered unto the shadows
who were still frolicking about,
running their tongues over
the wrought iron fence
and beyond.

To experiment more with these ideas, here are a few questions and prompts:
- What is the tone of this poem: mock serious, arch, whimsical?
- Which of the types of line does it match and why: short, long, medium, or undulating?
- Write a poem that uses overly familiar idioms in a literal or personified way. Have fun.
- Go over your poems and apply the questions I asked to your revision process.