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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Editing, Revising, and Otherwise Improving Your Own Poems

If you enjoy writing poems, you’ll do well to study poetry and poetic techniques. For instance, the Christian Poet's Guide to Writing Poetry e-book explains forms, techniques, and professionalism in poetry.  The text is very user-friendly, but for a quick and easy way to learn, try the Poetry Dictionary For Children & For Fun.

Besides those ways to improve your work, read poetry aloud – your own poems and those by other people – to get a feel for what works and what does not. You’ll then be better prepared to edit and revise your poems - even if that takes a while!

During the last few weeks, for example, I’ve been organizing poems around a single theme for a new chapbook. Although I’d written some of the poems recently, others came about years ago but just never seemed quite ready. So I let them sit and wait and wait until I had the time, focus, and distance to read my own work objectively.

As I began to tighten lines and tweak words or phrases, I found the “unready” poems needed one of these common solutions:

  • Long poems written in free verse often needed to be shortened, which usually meant omitting lines or cutting phrases that did not add anything new. If the whole poem had nothing new, it got cut from the stack, even if it had been waiting a long time for its turn in the pages of a book.
  • A few of the poems needed their lines moved around like furniture. Typically, this trial-and-error method focuses on finding the most pleasing arrangement or placing the strongest line at the end of the poem.
  • Some poems saw immediate improvement with a simple change of viewpoint. For instance, a first person or “I” poem sometimes worked better as second or third person poem, while a “you” poem that sounded too didactic became more interesting and accessible as “us.”

What works best for your poems will depend on various factors, of course, but the flaws in mine most likely mirror yours. The biggest difference will probably be heard in the sound of our speaking voice.

Coming from small towns in the South, I talk naturally in iambic pentameter, which generally means 10 to 11 syllables per line with the even numbers getting slightly more emphasis. (Yes, the above e-book explains this in detail.)

To avoid a sing-songy beat or monotone, variations in rhythm need to occur, but otherwise, five straight iambs have this basic rhythm: taDA/ taDA/ taDA/ taDA/ taDA. (Say that aloud, and you’ll feel silly but will hear what I mean.)

If you’re from a large city, it’s almost certain that you live and speak at a much faster pace than I do, which means your poems might sound that way too. For instance, if you talk briskly or in a clipped fashion, you might try working your poems toward, say, trimeter, which might give you three iambs per line, taDA/ taDA/ taDA or dimeter in two iambs: taDA/ taDA. Or, you might find a more comfortable voice by reversing the upbeat iambs into the downbeat rhythm of spondees: DAtum/ DAtum/ DAtum/.

The idea is to find whatever line length best echoes your speaking voice. How can you know? Listen to yourself talking. Read aloud each poem you write, and read aloud every revision. Then ask:

  • Does this poem sound like me?

  • Does it tightly compress my thoughts.

  • Does it arrange lines effectively?

  • Does the poem have something fresh or interesting to say?

If so, rejoice! Your poem speaks well for you and, most likely, will speak to other people too.

Mary Harwell Sayler


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