Thursday, April 14, 2011

Revising Your Poem: Four Ladders to the Next Level

So your poem is good.  Clever ending, a few cool metaphors.  Why isn't it getting accepted for publication?  Or making your loved ones dab their eyes and beg for a copy?

Now that I've published over fifty poems in journals and magazines, I'm starting to figure out why certain poems find a home and others sit in my files.  I'm also getting better at turning good poems into great ones.  When I want to polish up a poem, I reach for these four tools:

1) Voice:  Inject the poem with voice, baby!
We tend to start a poem using everyday language, then spruce it up with two or three figures of speech.  I call this the polka dot approach.  The poem is mostly plain with a few spots of color.  For a next-level poem, you want total coverage.  You want every word colorful.  Find places that use language in ordinary ways, then freshen them up with unusual word combinations.  Find places that sound -- let's just say it -- generic.  Punch up the personality.  Say it like only your imagination can.  Would your poem's speaker call clouds gauze or is she more of a cotton ball person?  Look at every blah phrase as a chance to rewrite and inject voice.

2) Adjective jacking:  Take 'em away!
"A bored-looking woman."  This is a phrase from a poem I'm working on this week.  I know it's weak because it makes the reader do all the work of imagining what "bored" looks like.  Instead of the adjective, "bored-looking," I need to use body language, action, or sensory detail.  I could try,
  • a slouching woman  (body language)
  • a snoring woman  (action)
  • the woman rested her chin on one hand and stared into space, seeming to focus on the place where the wall met the ceiling (visual sensory detail)
Find the places in your poem where people or situations are described in one-word adjectives.  Replace these words with crunchier stuff.  Don't say she's obsessive.  Tell us she color-codes her To Do lists.

3) Gift for the Selfish Reader
News flash!  Readers care nothing about your experiences unless those experiences enlighten their own.  Your traumas, your joys, the loved one you lost, the new baby -- none of these are powerful enough on their own to make a great poem.  Maybe a good poem, but not a next-level-er.  What you need is a gift for the selfish reader.  Something for her to take away.  Great literature offers insights into life.  Next-level poems make readers feel that, having read your poem, they must look at life in a new way.  Examine your poem for the take-away.  You can think of this as your poem's mission statement.  You might not write it into the poem directly, but make all the elements of the poem serve this mission.  Decide what you want your poem to convey.  Remember that readers don't want to learn about the poet; they want to learn about themselves.

4) The Knife:  Cut a lot
While I love excess, overflow, and voluptuousness in some places, most poems are just plain flabby.  To make your poem lean and mean, remove throat-clearing openings and spell-it-all-out endings.  We tend to to "ramp up" rather than jump in.  We tend to explain the meaning of our poems to make sure the reader gets it.  Give your readers some credit; no need to hand-hold.  You can also cut "the" in many places.  Cut "of gold," and use "golden."  "Of " is a wordiness alarm!  Get rid of author commentary too -- noise-some parts in the middle that explain stuff.  Let the poem embody the message rather than preach it.  A warning: Don't let the knife cut out the heart of your piece, nor every bit of whimsy or flair.  Whatever adds to the poem should remain.  Whatever obscures your larger intent should go.

OK, writing this post has inspired me to go do something better with that "bored-looking woman."  Wish me luck!  And I wish it for you, too.


  1. Great advice, and I am looking forward to taking my knife to some poems later this week. I have a lot to take away from this blog Rebecca. Thanks so much!
    From: Stacy Campbell

  2. Another great post--I'm learning so much from you, Rebecca! Thank you! And thank you for reinvigorating my inner poet. :D

  3. I don't need a knife. I generally need a machete to clean up the verbiage jungle. Your blog is refreshing. Thanks!