Monday, January 14, 2013

Revising Poetry

I've been working on my advent poetry collection, pulling together twenty-one years of poems: collating, arranging, reflecting, revising.

A few thoughts on the art and effort of revising poetry came to me this morning. I thought I'd share.

1) Sometimes you have to remember a poem is your's. I've been working with a poem I wrote seventeen years ago and it took me a while to move back into ownership of it. At first, I felt so distant ("did I write that?") that it almost felt as though I was doing a writing exercise with someone else's poem. A few minutes in, and it finally dawned on me that it really was mine...mostly when I came across a line that really needed help. I made the quick incision with such confidence that I suddenly realized, yes, this is really my work, and nobody can make these kinds of decisive cuts but me.

2) Line breaks make or break a piece. I think I have always been far more at home writing prose than poetry, though I've always hoped at least some of my prose has lines that sing. So many of my early poems, especially of the non-rhyming variety, are really big chunks of prose that I attempted to line break into poetry, and it shows. Although I've gotten more seasoned with line-breaks, I still struggle with them -- especially knowing if I should utilize them more for the eye than the ear or vice versa (I think it depends on the poem). These days I am finding myself drawn to writing more spare poems, or ones that impose some of limitations in form. Working up against the limitations keeps me from the excesses I'm prone to fall into.

3) Adjectives aren't always necessary.  Many times when I stumble onto a line that needs work, I discover I have lost the mystery of the poem somewhere along the way by piling up adjectives. I think I tend to hide behind them when I'm not sure what I want to say. So I say it two or three ways, or I try to give too much away to the reader, piling those adjectives on.  Sometimes I end up leaving more of them in than I should. Again, I am feeling more drawn to precision these days, not that I'm always wise about how to get there.

4) The line that didn't work when you first wrote the poem probably still isn't going to work years later. I discovered this recently in a poem I originally wrote three or four years ago. There was a line that always bothered me -- its meter was off, and every time I read the poem again, no matter how many times I drafted it, I always stumbled when I got there. For some reason, despite that, I left the line in -- probably because at the time I couldn't see my way around it, or didn't want to cut whatever particular image I'd crammed into the small space. I think I figured that, over the years, the line would somehow wear its way into the poem and just magically work. But then I picked it up and read anew for the first time in ages, and guess what? I got to that line and tripped on it again (like Dick Van Dyke tripping on his ottoman). I've been reworking it to make it sing instead of squawk, and I'm discovering that a few years distance actually helps -- I am not so wedded to whatever it was I couldn't seem to bear to give up when I first wrote it.

Revising is a whole different art than original drafting, but there is something uniquely satisfying about it, especially when it gives you the opportunity to sharpen a poem's focus. I hope that's what I'm doing with some of these poems, especially the older ones.

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