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The Art of Revision

posted: 10.19.09 by archived

By Sage Cohen

One of the trickiest—and most liberating—aspects of poetry is that there is no Gold Standard against which we measure its worth. Without this standard, it can also be difficult to evaluate when a poem is finished. Because each poem is trying to accomplish something different, it is up to us to decide when the poem has arrived. This is not easy to do, even when one has been writing for decades, but it sure is satisfying to practice!

The important thing to remember about revision is that it is a process by which we become better acquainted with the poem and push it farther toward its own potential. In the revision stage, we revisit and may reinvent the choices we’ve already made with language, image, voice, music, line, rhythm, and rhyme.

The tricky balance involves wildly experimenting with what might be possible in a poem—beyond what we first laid down on the page—without losing the integrity of idea or emotion that brought us to the poem in the first place. This is a skill that develops over time, through experience and largely by feel. If it seems like you’re groping around in the dark when revising, welcome to the club!

The process of revising poems is unique for each poet; often, each poem has its own, unprecedented trajectory. I’ve had a few “whole cloth” poems arrive nearly perfectly complete in one contiguous swoosh of pen to paper. And I have other poems that have taken me more than fifteen years to finish. More typically, I work on a poem for a few weeks or months. Sometimes, I think a poem is finished, but years later, it proves me wrong, demanding a new final verse or line structure or title.

For the purposes of establishing a revising practice, I recommend that you divide writing and editing into two completely separate acts that happen at two different sittings, preferably on different days. The goal of this checks-and-balances system is to give yourself the space to let it rip when you’re writing without fearing interference from your inner editor. Don’t worry: If it’s bad now, it will still be bad next week; you can fix it then.

Once you feel you’ve exhausted every last drop of poetic possibility in the writing of the first draft, or any time you get stuck and don’t know where to go next, put your poem aside for a while. The next time you return to it, you’ll be wearing your editor hat.

In my experience, time is the greatest of editors. The longer a poem sits untouched, the more likely you are to have a sense of how to proceed when you sit down to revise.

Activity:

Don’t know where to start with your revisions? Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is most alive in your poem? Underline the line(s), word(s), phrase(s), stanza(s) that seem to be the kindling feeding the fire of this poem so you can easily reference what’s working throughout the revision process.
  • Is there introductory information at the beginning or summary information at the end that could be trimmed?
  • Who is speaking? What would the poem be like if told from a different perspective? (For example, if a poem is about an experience shared by a mother and daughter, and told from the daughter’s point of view, try telling it from the mother’s point of view.)
  • Where is language weak and flabby? How can you give it more energy and muscle? Can passive verbs become active? Can modifiers be cut? Should “dropped” be changed to “plummeted”?
  • Verb tense: What would your poem be like in a different tense than it was written? Even if it happened in the past, try the present, and vice versa. See what gives it the most power and energy.
  • Does the shape of the poem (line length, stanza breaks, white space) mirror the emotion and rhythm of its content? Should it?
  • Are punctuation and capitalization consistent?
  • Is there good music of repeating sounds throughout the poem?
  • Does each line break create the desired interest, pause, movement, and focus on key moments or words?
  • Does the title serve the poem? How can the title take the poem further?

Remember that only you know the best way to craft your poem. Have fun, be willing to experiment, and you’ll learn a little more about revision each time you try.

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Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen

Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry (Writers Digest Books, 2009) and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. An award-winning poet, she writes three monthly columns about the craft and business of writing, publishes the Writing the Life Poetic Zine and serves as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher 4. Sage has won first prize in the Ghost Road Press poetry contest and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She curates a monthly reading series at Barnes & Noble and teaches the online class Poetry for the People. To learn more, visit www.sagesaidso.com. Join the conversation about living and writing a poetic life at www.writingthelifepoetic.typepad.com!

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature, Peer Review, Teaching Advice, Writing Process
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