Yesterday was a very windy day. Some leaves have survived the gusts of wind, but not many. It has been a short drama of color this year, with only a few acts remaining. The maples still have some leaves, the poplars are just turning yellow, and the oak is only now losing its green.
While the wind was blowing, I was at my desk, revising some of my poems. It is my least favorite phase of writing poetry. I love the beginning, the first ideas fluttering around in my head, and put to paper. The page at this point is a confused mass of words and phrases, squiggles and arrows. I like these ‘pen and paper’ revisions. There is something about the hand-brain connection, so I write and rewrite quite liberally. By the time I commit the poem to the computer screen, it has already had five or six revisions. Once on the screen, I move things around a bit, but I print the page to do the finishing touches.
I am quite orderly about final revisions.
First, I work on what the poem is saying. This is so difficult for me, because I tend to write descriptive poetry. I have to challenge myself to add narrative, or clarify deeper meaning. Sometimes the poem gets a new title at this stage. Unfortunately, I am rarely happy with the results of this step in the revision process.
Next, I do the detailed revisions and for this, I have a checklist to follow (see ‘revision checklist for poetry’ under about)… I know my own work very well and I am prone to repeating words, using passive rather than active verbs, and using the singular when I should use the plural. I ‘press’ on each word in the poem, to see if another word will add additional meaning, improve internal rhyme, or covey a more accurate image. I count syllables … sometimes small changes will accentuate or create structure … sometimes there is little if any pattern to the poem. Lately, I am paying a lot of attention to the ends of the lines, trying to decide why I end each line where I do.
Finally, I read the poem aloud. This helps me to hear the words, and discover where the rhythm is off, and to know when to include smaller words like articles and when to let them go. Reading aloud also helps me with ‘voice’. I often shift from a child’s point of view to the technical and I have to be wary of leaving my audience in a state of confusion.
The next step in the revision process is more enjoyable. To do some final polishing, I read my poems to an audience. Sometimes this audience is a member of my family and I listen carefully to their suggestions. I especially think about bits they may not like. I also read my poems to the members of my two writing groups. They offer excellent critique and usually I make some revisions afterward.
When is a poem complete? Perhaps never. I still work on poems published years ago. I guess I agree with Oscar Wilde who said, “This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.”
If you write poetry, how much time do you spend on revision? What process do you follow?
a violent October wind –
every tree bleeds red,
my books also lean
and the pencils in their holder
the colors in the hand-blown drinking glass
purple lavender, scent of summer
the flowers now dry
braided with ribbon
Copyright Jane Tims 2012