Revising

Hi everyone,

By request, let’s talk about revising poems. I have no absolute formula but in general the process from beginning idea to finished poem goes something like this.

The idea is the easy part. It may come from a prompt such as the word of the month challenge. It may come from a thousand places: thoughts, conversations, quotations, pictures, jokes, cartoons, joyful moments, embarrassments, sadness. Reach your hand into the air and grab one. Ideas are everywhere.

Getting started is just as generous with pathways. Maybe I’m responding to a challenge to write a limerick or a haiku. Maybe the challenge is to write about a particular subject. Now and then I simply make a list of subjects of interest, choose one from the list, and set out to capture the essence of it in a poem. Be patient and don’t set the hook too soon.

I’m sure that everyone has his/her own method for getting into the poem itself. My typical beginning is rather willy-nilly. I try any number of first statements, probing to see if this is coming down as free verse or in something with rhyme and meter. There are times when it takes several stabs at it before an answer seems to appear. Once a pattern, or lack of one, seems dominant, I slavishly follow that lead to see if what I’ve chosen is do-able.

In a sense, I revise as I go but only enough to allow the rough poem to expose itself with its faults and possibilities. Unless the poem has a strictly dictated form, I have to determine as I go how many stanzas I need to tell my story. Too few kills the tension. Too many bores the reader.

Finally comes the last two steps. The first is revision. I come to this with a heavy hand. Stanzas meet their maker. Lines trade places. New information is introduced. Sometimes the first “final” version is hard to recognize from the last one. The second last step is rewriting. This means, to me, polishing. Looking for better metaphors, stronger verbs, more exciting nouns, more surprising rhymes.

Now and then a poem just plops itself down with a smug, “Aha!” When that happens, I look around hoping no one saw how easy it was. Mostly, I work at it. My record number of revisions/rewritings was something over twenty. My average is probably half a dozen.

By example, here are the first two stanzas of a recent poem:
FIRST DRAFT
The Robin

When nights turn bitter
and worms tunnel down deeperdeeper down
to hide from the cold winter’s frosty breath,
robins band together leave for warmer places.
When the ground turns hard and cold,

Somewhere south the air is warmer
and berries beckon.
Somewhere south their strong wings take them
hundreds, maybe thousands of mile.

Here is the last draft of those same two stanzas.

When ground turns
beak-chilling cold
and worms tunnel deep
below winter’s breath,
robins take wing,

Sometimes for weeks –
a thousand miles –
guided by sun, gravity,
remembered streams, roads.

Time is another partner in this pursuit of a fitting end. My writer’s need to finish sometimes gets me in trouble. A year or two ago I wrote something for one of Pat Lewis’ anthologies. He read it and pronounced it pap, or something akin to it. He was, of course, correct. I think Jane Yolen still belongs to a writer’s group. Is that right, Jane? Getting writing right is not easy but for me that is the joy of writing.

The floor is open for conversation. Thanks in advance.

David

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9 comments on “Revising

  1. Great post, David.
    Did I miss the part where you read the poem, over and over, ALOUD? A poem has to sound good to the ear and delightful in the mouth.

    • You didn’t miss it, Joy. I forgot to mention it. I read my work aloud so routinely that I overlooked pointing out that important aspect of writing/revising/rewriting. Thanks for catching me at it!

  2. David,
    You mentioned the fun of working on verbs and word choice. I’d like to add that when a good friend says, “You’ve gone with the easy word here,” or “Is this poem asking to be in form?” or even, “have you played with the lay-out on the page?” That is when the party begins. Those questions open possibilities which can change the whole direction of the poem. Yes, that is the fun. Yahoo! It is so exciting being a children’s poet.

  3. Thanks much, David. This is helpful, and examples are the best teachers. Interesting how the beginning of the fifth line became the first line in the final version.

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