Revive, revisit, revise, reprise!
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REVISING A DRAFT POEM             

Dexter Dunphy   (9/3/2022)

First vision, then revision. (Lyn Emanuel).

  1. Meaning: A poem seeks to convey meaning to a listener or reader. Can I make my meaning clearer?
  • Voice: Who is speaking? Whose point of view is the poem expressing? Am I myself today now, or for example myself as a child or am I impersonating someone else? Could I experiment with another’s point of view?
  • Context: Where is the action of the poem taking place? Can I specify this more clearly, more concretely? Will the reader be able to follow my more ‘esoteric’ or personal references? Does it matter? Where in time is the poem situated? Could I experiment with changing the tense – e.g. from past to present to make it more immediate, more dramatic?
  • Title: Does the poem’s title set up the reader’s expectations as I wish? Or does it ‘give the game away’, spoiling the subsequent surprise or revelation in the poem itself? Is this the best title or just an interim label I stuck on when I set out to write the draft?
  • Unfolding of meaning: Poems often have an internal drama that unfolds to make the meaning(s) of the poem more explicit as the poem progresses. Does this work in my poem? Should stanzas be re-arranged to make this work better? (Remember that the logic may be emotional rather than rational). How explicit do I want the meaning to be? Do I want to leave the reader with a sense of mystery that leaves them wondering…?
  • Levels of meaning: Poems are often placed in an everyday specific situation, time and life-space but use that concrete level to express something much deeper and more universal about the human condition. Are there deeper levels of meaning I could uncover here?

Poetry is in love with the instant and seeks to relive it in the poem, thus separating it from sequential time and turning it into a fixed present. (Octavio Paz)

  1. Structure: Poetry, as against prose, is generally signalled by a systematic arrangement of free-standing lines on a blank page. Lines are often arranged in stanzas.

The cosmos speaks in patterns. (Heraclitus)

  • Line length: Are the line lengths OK? Do they support the unfolding of meaning? Are the line breaks meaningful? Could I improve the impact by end stopping or by enjambment (running sentence structure across line endings)?
  • Stanzas: Are there stanzas? If not, would breaking the poem up into stanzas work better? If I have stanzas, do the stanzas signal shifts in meaning?
  • Appearance on the page: Does the physical shape of the poem on the page support the meaning? If stanzas are of unequal length, could I standardise the number of lines in each? Or does the ragged appearance on the page help express, for example, distress?
  1. Metaphors/Images: Poetry gains much of its power through the use of freshly coined metaphors and images.

It’s from metaphors that we can best get hold of something fresh. (Aristotle)

  • What metaphors/images have I used? Are they appropriate to the meaning I’m trying to convey? Are they fresh and original or clichéd? Are they likely to capture the reader’s attention, remain in their memory? Is there a central metaphor? If so, is it sustained through the poem? If several, are they linked in such a way as to carry the poem forward?

Let us go then you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table. (T.S. Eliot ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)’.

  1. Sound: Poetry was born in sound. Before people became literate, poems were spoken or sung and the sound was vital to catch the audience’s attention and help people hold the poem in their memory.

        Sound and meaning together create the poem. (R. Pretty)

Diction: Is the ‘diction’ I’ve used appropriate to the subject? (‘High’ language uses more words with Greek and Latin origins; ‘low’ language uses more words of Anglo-Saxon origin – hence more ‘everyday, casual’ language). At what level do I want to pitch my diction? Is it consistent across the poem?

Metre/Rhythm: Poetry, in contrast to prose, generally relies more on rhythm for its impact. Does my poem use a formal metre and line length

such as iambic pentameter or is it free verse? Whichever, does the metre/rhythm help the reader/listener hold the poem in their head? (Read the poem aloud to test this – perhaps to someone else).

Rhyme: Can I improve the sound of the poem with rhyme at the end of lines or within lines, or the use alliteration or assonance to build a richness of voice?

Flow: Does my poem move through phases or stages? Can I use the sound of words to emphasise this with rhyme, assonance, alliteration, repetition?

  1. Impact/Power: Poems express emotions, often deeply. A poem is a dialogue with life. Poets use all the tools at their disposal to express emotions, not in abstractions, but through concrete images that compel an emotional response. Writing poetry demands a high level of honesty and integrity, facing one’s own inner emotions directly. Powerful poems embody truth telling.

In a poem, we give ourselves away. (Mark Tredinnick)

I can stand back and look at the overall poem and ask: “Is this honest? Can I be more truthful? Explore the emotion(s) more deeply?” and so improve the impact.

Write to stay in the habit of telling the truth. (Mark Tredinnick)

  1. The Final Cut: Poetry favours the concise, economical use of language. The final cut is to ask: What could I leave out? One way to tackle this is to ask every stanza, every line and every word to justify its continuing existence by stating its contribution to the overall impact of the poem. Ask: “What would it do to the poem to leave this out?” And even if this is one of the best lines I have ever written but it adds little or nothing, then it has to go. Be prepared to “kill your darlings”. Ouch!

Now I can read my revised poem aloud, slowly and appreciatively. It may be a small thing now but it is my own – no one else could have written this. Then I can put the poem away, sleep on it, maybe let a week or two pass. Then return and make further revisions if warranted – my subconscious mind will have continued to work on any remaining issues. Is there part of the poem that makes me uneasy? I may want to suppress this but can try to work out why and resolve the issue. When I am satisfied that the poem is succinct, strong, unified and powerful, it is ready to launch. It is something I can be proud of. (If not, of course, I can tear it up and wait for the next vision).

Poetry is a means of exchange, a form of reciprocity, a magic to be shared, a gift. (Edward Hirsch)