Top Five Strategies to Revise Your Poems

Revision is a significant part of the writing process. It’s where the well of an idea is dug deeper. It’s when images are made sharper. It’s how an argument is made most sound.

There are many strategies to revise your poems. Determining the best strategy to based on your own aesthetic. You may focus on tidying blind spots. You may focus on making your strengths more evident. What this article offers is useful to any writer. Take a look, and sound off in the comments!

Strategy #1: Give texture to your verbs.

It’s as simple as that. You want your language to evoke a real experience or surreal feeling. It’s difficult to do that when the actions in your poem are flat or generic. Compare “he walks in flower fields” to “she saunters in flower fields.” This doesn’t mean visit a thesaurus. Saunter gives character to the person’s stride. It creates a mood or an expectation. You can even use that mood or expectation to create conflict. Imagine “she saunters in flower fields with a machine gun.” The mood of her walk is at odds with her action. It gives a sense of character and suggests a history.

Exercise:
One of the easiest opportunities for adding textures to verbs is to locate all of your copular (to be) verbs such as “is,” “are,” “was,” “were,” “been,” “being” and replace them with verbs that suggest a mood or character. While you’re at it, underline all of the verbs in your poem and interrogate them. What texture does the verb “cut” suggest as opposed to “tear?” What is the difference between “stumble” and “trip?”

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Aiming the machine gun

Strategy #2: Make sure each line has an individual integrity.

This is a one of the “word nerd” strategies to revise your poems. Most contemporary poems are heavy on enjambment versus end-stopped lines. In other words, the thoughts may run over several lines. Poems may use enjambment as a musical device, but you can also use it to create tension in syntax (the order of the words). You can create interesting double meanings or even contradict your own statements using this strategy. Geoffrey Hill, a contemporary English poet, is a master of this. Consider the opening lines of his poem “September Song:”

Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.

The “untouchable” in the first line serves as a hinge. Much like a “kireji” in Japanese haiku, it punctuates the end of the line and serves as a link to suggest two thoughts independent of each other. When taken as two separate lines, “untouchable” serves as a texture for “undesirable” in the first line. The rest of the sentence contradicts that earlier interpretation, assuring that the subject was not “untouchable.” The second line introduces a dark humor to create tension when the integrity is read on its own. Hill uses the rhetorical trope litotes, an emphasis of deliberate understatement, to suggest that the subject wasn’t remembered. It contradicts with the fact that there is a memorial to the person, yet it also implies a deeper truth about the personhood of the subject. What made up her personality wasn’t remembered. It has passed with time—and with the mass murder of all those she loved by Nazis.

Simply put: have each of your lines make sense on its own. If you want to add a level of tension or conflict (especially if your poem is lacking that), have a line’s individual integrity contradict the full (syntactical) meaning of the sentence. It’s one of the most fun strategies to revise your poems. Read the selected poems of Geoffrey Hill, Lorine Niedecker, and the haiku masters Basho and Issa.

Exercise:
Read your poem backwards from the last line up to the first line. Does each line make some level of sense? Do they contain an interesting piece of a thought or image? Can you find any interesting double meanings or is there any tension? Add just one interesting double meaning and a moment of tension to the syntax.

 

Strategy #3: Imitate the proven structure of a poem you love.

There are only about [insert arbitrary number here] types of poems. Your poem fits within a tradition. It might be by form: epistolary (letter), bar narrative, dramatic monologue, epic, etc. It might be by technique: surrealist tradition, language school, imagist, etc. It might be connected by subject: confessional, cultural identity, love, pastoral, etc. Determine your tradition and find poems within that tradition that you like. You can do this by googling “poems about __________,” then visiting the results or going to Poetryfoundation.com and using their “Poems & Poets” search tool. Now examine the strategies that your favorite poem within that tradition uses. Where is it set? Who is the speaker? How does the poem begin and end? Does it use questions? Structure your own poem around the techniques used, but make it wholly your own. Update the location to a specific place that you know. Have your own character be the speaker. Begin and end the poem in ways opposite than your beloved poem. If it uses questions, ask your own or perhaps answer the questions as statements in your poem.

Exercise:
The easiest way to imitate a poem is to simply substitute its major parts of speech to learn the structure. Simply substituting its parts can give you a better sense of how the poet chose the moods. Pay specific attention to how the transitions are made. Listen to Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” then fill out your own version in this Poetry Madlib. Note what the structure gives to the poem. Finally, without using any of the words, use only the location of the transitions in your own poem. Pay attention to lines 4, 8, 13, and 16.

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Whoever you are, no matter how lonely

Strategy #4: Converse with a sacred text.

Dana Gioia asked in a 1991 essay, “Can Poetry Matter?” He suggested that American poetry was a subculture and had become inessential. Sometimes you don’t understand what your poem is lacking, but you wonder if it matters. If it does matter, then who does it matter to? One way to combat this is by connecting to the universal. That doesn’t mean throw in loads of abstractions or large philosophical statements. It means approach what many people connect to. Go read a sacred text. Become familiar with a large, human question that you can relate to. Find a lesson that illustrates it within a sacred text. It doesn’t matter if it’s from one of the Holy Bibles, Book of the Dead, Qur’an, Popol Vuh, Dianetics, Tao Te Ching, or anything. Pick a text you’re unfamiliar with. Find a parable or aphorism that relates to the subject of your poem and insert texts using assemblage as a part of the technique. Use this one of the strategies to revise your poems so it makes sense for this second voice to enter into the poem. How can the sacred text best fit your poetic context?

Exercise:
Flip through the Old Testament and find the Book of Proverbs. Select a statement, such as from Chapter 1:7, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” and make it the title of your poem whether it makes sense or not. Now find only a part of another verse on a similar subject, such as from Chapter 3:20, “By his knowledge the depths are broken up” and begin the second stanza of your poem with it. If you didn’t have a second stanza, you have one now. Now create a linking tissue between the verse fragment and the rest of your poem. Add as many additional verse fragments as you like.

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Consult the book of armaments!

Strategy #5: Break your intentions and use lateral revision.

Word removal, a search for form, analysis of rhythm, and maximizing concrete detail are logical things you do when searching for strategies to revise your poems. Sometimes the logical thing, deducing “what’s wrong” isn’t the best solution. Sometimes improving your work comes from approaching it from the side and disrupting your own intentions. The construction of a poem may get in the way of the poem. Try a technique from the Workshop of Potential Literature (OULIPO). N+7, lipograms, and perverbs are often used. You might also consider adopting an Oblique Strategy: “humanize something free of error” is one of my favorites. You can even visit the Lateral Revision Web App for a poetry-focused version of these strategies. Find one of these techniques or forms and use it your own way.

Exercise:
Visit the Lateral Revision Web App, click the info button, then read the “How to Use” section. Disrupt your poem by using a line from the app.

 

*Note: This article on strategies to revise your poems uses a few terms borrowed from rhetoric and linguistics (and concisely defined) only because I believe they may be useful as part of a poet’s lexicon when considering poetics. It’s not an attempt to be academic. Trust me. It started with the choice of copular verbs mostly because of its similarity to copulate. That it’s the proper term is only secondary.

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