How to edit your poem

Most young writers ask me the same question, "is my poem any good?" 

The real question shouldn't be about whether the poem is GOOD; it should be about two things:

1. Does my poem say what I meant to say
2. Will a room full of people be able to understand my poem

For young writers who are just getting the hang of craft, these issues come down to a single repeated phrases that we hear all the time from teachers: "show, don't tell." But what does it mean to show? It means that we are being specific. 

What happens when we call our friends and say, "you'll never believe what happened last night!!" When they respond with, "what happened," they're calling for a story. They want a narrative. They need details, baby, and you better deliver. If you replied with, "Tommy came over and said a lot of stuff," it doesn't really tell us much.

But if you said, "Tommy came over an hour earlier with a bouquet of flowers," that would give your friend more information. For an activity, I want you to think about your poem like you're writing it to a friend.

Take an old poem and see if you can rewrite it with this lens. Pretend as though you're retelling it to your best friend who needs to know all the details.

"Tommy came over" becomes "Tommy came over an hour early with a bouquet of roses."

"I'm so angry," becomes "I can't stop shaking with anger."

"Jealousy ruined me," becomes, "I looked at his girlfriend's Instagram for 9 hours straight yesterday." 

How to Edit Your Poem

Here's a compilation of my favorite editing practices:

1. Chop off the head and tail off the poem

2. Rewrite the poem from the bottom up (make the last line the opening)

3. Check for unnecessary repetition at the beginning of each line 

4. Leave nothing that sounds like anyone else could have written it (Lisa Marie Basile

5. "The poetic line is a primary act of conviction--surrounded by aisles of pause and space. A line steps out of circularity to assert. And what it asserts is: further." — Cristina David in Furthermore: Some Lines About the Poetic Line

6. Is your poem predictable? 

7. Does your poem go deep enough?

8. Can your poem work better without the last line? (Karen Paul Holmes)

9. Replace "to be" verbs with other, more powerful and specific verbs

How to Handle the Poetic Line

Most of the time, when we talk about craft in poems, we naturally speak of things that are able to be spoken of. We talk about what we know and what we can say. And so we say, “Verbs are stronger blacksmiths of meaning than adjectives are, yet sometimes, the plainest adjective, a color, for instance, can bring enormous expansion to a poem, simply by engaging the senses.” We say, “Each moment of your reader’s granted attention is a gift you must repay with something worthy; every syllable, every comma, must be in the poem for good reason.” We say, “There are at least seven different forms of ‘you,’ and if you change between them mid-poem, the reader must be able to know that has happened, or will be confused.” We say, “Some poems pause to look at something outside their given world; these window-moments bring light and air, volume and contrast, and can be what allows the unbearable to be fully felt.”  

These are the kinds of craft points I make when I teach. I teach punctuation as a form of orchestration and musical notation. I teach close reading, rhetoric, transitions. But the opposite of all this, equally important, cannot be taught; it can only be remembered and acknowledged. After a poem is written, something of what has happened outside the writer’s consciousness can sometimes be named. But during the writing, the poet cannot know everything about the poem. In lyric poems, I suspect the poet often enough may not know much of anything. Not what it is about, not where it is going. The poem needs its first draft intoxication, its subversive trickster energies, its whistling in the dark, its unexpected and unfendable off pang of longing. A poem too sure of itself will have no crack for breathable air to enter, and will die for lack of permeability. Poems that are alive will have a life of their own, beyond the control of the writer. The writer’s only task when that life arrives is to get out of its way.  

We are the amanuenses of our poems. They dictate us. Or so it seems to me. We learn everything we can of craft so that what we know can be of service to what wants to come through us.
— Jane Hirshfield in an interview at Pirene's Fountain
 From  Two Takes on Poetic Meaning and the Line  by Paisley Rekdal

From Two Takes on Poetic Meaning and the Line by Paisley Rekdal