A few words about revising poems

May 13, 2017

 

This is a guest post by Bethany Reid.

I was taking my very first poetry class, from Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington, when I learned that Dylan Thomas’s executors found among his papers 67 drafts of “Fern Hill.” I was all raw courage then, and the notion of revision imprinted itself on me, a little like a German shepherd adopting a duckling. So when my students get discouraged about revision, when my writing friends tell me to stop revising anything, I tell them about “Fern Hill.” It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the madwoman stage of drafting a new poem, but my heart belongs to revision. And if you recently participated in NaPoWriMo — National Poetry Writing Month — then you have 30 new poems in your notebook, and the party is about to begin.

The word, revision, looks abstract, but it’s really fossil poetry, in the best Emersonian sense. That vis in the middle means that revising is seeing again. And I think of revision not as a single lens, but as a series of lenses.

Especially when I’m not sure where to begin revising, I take out a lens for word choice. Maybe I’ll circle all of the verbs in the poem. Just bringing them to my awareness (just seeing them) begins the process of making them stronger, and for deepening the poem as well. You can use this lens for each part of speech. Are your nouns concrete? Any adverbs rattling about and asking to be excused? Too many the’s or it’s?

I have another lens for line endings. Colleen McElroy taught me to read aloud only the end words of each line. (End words in the first stanza of “Fern Hill”: boughs, green, starry, climb, eyes, towns, leaves, barley, light). No, you don’t need a strong word every single time, but becoming aware of what you do have will alert you to missed potential, and strengthen the entire poem.

Once you’ve looked at line endings, take a quick look at line openings. (“Fern Hill” won’t seem as useful here, but notice that in addition to 8 repetitions of and, words like fields, time, golden, down, and sang occur. They are almost a précis of the poem.)

There is so much more you can do, I know. I ask questions. I take out separate lenses to add color words, smells (which I tend to neglect), or emotion. I read my poems aloud as I revise. I also like to play around with line length and stanza breaks. Sometimes I try putting a poem that’s not working into a form, a sonnet maybe or something more complex like a sestina. Just to see what happens. I carry my poems with me and read them away from my desk. Even submitting poems to journals and contests turns out to be a kind of lens. As my poems move into my send-out book, they get another read through. If they come back to me…I am willing to do it all again.

Eventually, there is an end-point. And I don’t mean a point of diminishing-returns (an expression I rather hate), or the famous Paul Valéry line: “Poems are never finished, only abandoned” (though I agree). With practice, I’ve learned not only how to revise my poems, but how to see when they satisfy me. You will, too.

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Bethany Reid’s most recent book, Sparrow, won the 2012 Gell Poetry Prize. Recent publications include EIL, Clementine Unbound, Silver Birch, Del Sol and Cheat River Review. After 25 years of teaching, she retired early to take care of family and write. You can learn more about her at her blog (bethanyareid.com, formerly A Writer’s Alchemy).
 
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6 Responses to “A few words about revising poems”


  1. Thank you!! Never having studied poetry, this was extremely helpful. Headed of to play with a poem. Leslie

  2. Carolynne Harris Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with revising and editing and you gave me some better ideas and ways of doing things. Thanks so much.

  3. Bethany Reid Says:

    Woohoo! Playing with poems STRONGLY encouraged!

  4. awritersalchemy Says:

    Can’t imagine a better way to spend the day — happy playing!


  5. I like the revision process, too. I’m liking the “Reid” step-by-step approach to revision!

  6. goodgrrrl! Says:

    I have learned over time that there can be no rush. It can take years – and sometimes it should.


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