revising poetry

14 posts

Bad Words: They Creep In

word

Bad words. They lose themselves in the crowd, but they are more prevalent than you think. Some of them are obvious, like the word “closed” in the expression “closed fist.” Modifiers are always guilty until proven innocent, and a better noun or verb always trumps an unnecessary modifier, so until they prove themselves good, adjectives and adverbs are suspect.

In his book Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, Stephen Dobyns lists some so-called “bad words” to watch out for, but before we go there, know this: We all have our own personal list of bad words. These would be words we overuse without realizing it.

One way to track your word habits is to use the Search in Document function on Microsoft Word, the popular software many writers use. Or you could go to a website that will track words for you. Simply cut and paste your poem, essay, chapter, etc., and let the ghost in the machine scare up some statistical habits you have as a writer of words. Once such site is this one.

As for Dobyns, he lists the following culprits: still, even, some, yet, very, just, clearly, only, finally, quite, somewhat, rather, fairly, big, deep, loud, bright, etc.

You can highlight your poem or text and use the Search in Document function to scare these up one at a time. The deal then is to ask yourself: Can I do without this word entirely? Can I change it?

Sometimes the answer is yes. Strike, kill, and shout “Eureka! Less is more!” Sometimes the answer is no. This may be a “bad word,” you tell yourself, but if I use it infrequently and, where I do, it is key to the sentence or line’s meaning, it becomes a “good word.”

The point here is at least going through the exercise and making it part of your revision process. Add Dobyn’s bad words to your own list of unreliable go-to’s. Then search and, where appropriate, destroy.

How To Critique a Poem

feedbak

Critiquing a poem isn’t rocket science. For starters, don’t use clichés, like “rocket science,” but know what a cliché is, because spotting them will come in handy.

Before we get started on how to critique a poem, though, let’s start with how NOT to critique one. This assumes, of course, that the poet (or fellow student) is offering up a first draft and genuinely seeks ways to improve it.

First, the “Not-ty” List:

  • Do not read the poem and respond with generalizations, positive or negative. Avoid, “Boy, does this need work,” or the equally unhelpful “I love this. Great job!” Negative generalizations without reasons or suggestions are worthless. Complete affirmation of early drafts is equally bad. Serious poets who market work may well wonder, after collecting multiple hosannas from critical readers, why dozens upon dozens of poetry editors reject their work during the submission process. Similarly, student poets may wonder why, if all her readers loved it, the poem turned in received less than an “A” from the instructor (setting aside, for now, the advisability of grading poems in the first place). Wonder no more!
  • Do not confuse revision critiques with editing critiques. Revision deals with diction, semantics, ideas, techniques, word choice. Editing digs into the nitty-gritty of spelling, grammar, and mechanics. Sure, these are important, but they have a place and that place comes after revision. That said, it is OK to mention quickly if editing problems lead to confusion issues (which ties into content). From there, move onto the marketplace of ideas for revision.
  • Do not be lazy. Give others’ work the same amount of attention and effort you’d like to see extended to yours. Annotate. Look up words. Jot down ideas. (See list below.)
  • Do not subscribe to the “all interpretations are equal” theory. They aren’t. Ideas are arguments that need backing with textual evidence. Therefore, if you want to push an interpretation you’re seeing, be sure it fits the whole poem, from title to final line. Going off on tangents or seeing symbolism in every word is not only unhelpful, it’s insensitive and, in some cases, just silly (only no one’s laughing).
  • Don’t rewrite the poem for the writer. There’s a fine line between suggestion and hijacking. Your criticisms should be tools to work with, not a project taken over and finished by a contractor.
  • Don’t feel insulted if the writer chooses not to act on your ideas. Often some of your ideas will be used, but seldom will they all be adopted. And if none are and you did your job, know that you have provided what was asked of you. Ultimate agency lies with the writer. That is as it should be.

 

Now, the “Do It Right” List:

  • Have a pencil and dictionary (or dictionary site) on hand.
  • Have a quiet atmosphere. Just as mushrooms prefer a dark, moist area, so do poems prefer a setting where everyone can focus and give their undivided. If there is a talking phase for feedback and the room is divided in groups, speak under your breath such that nearby groups would have to work hard to make out what you’re saying.
  • Be honest but empathetic. They make a great pair. It might help to remember that writers, no matter how thick their skin, are vulnerable in unique ways. A person wrote this piece and is taking down the walls in sharing it, so be kind (it will feel good, trust me).
  • If you can, ask the poet what type of advice she is looking for. Everything? Mostly the opening or closing? Word choice? Some poets will tell you it’s about what they want already. They simply want “fine tuning” tips. Others will say, in so many words, “Help!” Any advice welcome. There’s a difference! If you offer wholesale changes advice to a poet who needs only fine-tuning, you’ll be wasting a lot of time (and, perhaps, insulting the writer). On the other hand, if you offer a few tidbits to someone who needs big-time help, they’ll feel shortchanged. Welcome to the world of critiquing!
  • Ready to go? Read the poem a few times. Place a check mark near any words, lines, or stanzas you might want to comment on.
  • Look up words you don’t know. This is basic respect. It will also inform your response, especially if no definitions of the word seem to match up with the poet’s intent. Either say so or ask a question for clarification. (Depending on agreed upon ground rules, this could be in the form of writing or speaking or, as I like it, first writing in silence and then, once everyone has written something, speaking in turn.)
  • Start with what you like. Maybe you don’t like anything, but something in this poem has possibility. It is not a violation of your oath of honesty to show the writer where the greatest possibilities exist.
  • Be specific. This cannot be stressed enough. Direct the writer’s (and other critiquers’, if this is a group setting) attention to specific stanzas, lines, and words. You can annotate this with “S” for stanza and “L” for line. Thus, you might write, “In S2, L5, I like how you used the word…,” etc., which, in speaking terms, would be, “In Stanza two, Line five, I like how….”
  • Pretend the writer is a little kid who will always asks why after you speak. That is, anticipate this by offering your reasons. Every constructive criticism, positive or negative, is rooted in reason. To not explain yours is to leave a job half done. It’s sloppy.
  • Speak in the language of poetry. Embed your critique in terms new to you or well-known to you, e.g. “In S3, L1, I really like the metaphor (read it) because (explain why).” If this is a classroom, all the repetition of terms will be like dropping Spanish language learners into Madrid for a month. Immersion works!
  • Offer ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. That said, you should always ask the writer up front (or agree before beginning as a group) how she wants them. Some poets love specific ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. Others find such specificity invasive. They prefer that you just point out strengths and weaknesses without sharp examples of possible changes. They don’t want to be influenced by them, in other words. Others like the specific ideas because it leads them to their own specific ones, similar to but different from the reader’s.
  • Know that all critiques are food for thought. Writers may later sample them by returning to the written annotations, then either moving on the ideas or choosing not to. Again, agency remains with the writer. She owns the poem. That cannot be stressed enough.
  • It is OK to say what the poem means to you as a reader. This meaning may surprise the writer. It may also illuminate flaws to the writer, who will realize that her lack of clarity has lead readers astray. Alternately, as is only appropriate in the reader-writer agreement, alternate readings may delight the writer, who actually can learn something about herself and her writing from such responses. Remember, though, that all interpretations must be rooted in evidence from the complete poem. Without that, it is nothing but a chasing after the wind (Biblical for “a worthless enterprise”).
  • Compliment the writer for taking risks, even if it doesn’t quite work yet. Explain why and how the risk might work with changes or a different direction. Some writers, especially in school settings, play it overly safe and follow the example of professionals or exemplar texts too closely. Such vanilla mimicry does not invoke the Muse, it invokes the grade. Writing poems with a good grade in mind through safety and mimicry is an assault on everyone’s sensibilities. If you see it as a reader, offer ideas on how the writer can free herself, have fun, be creative, take risks!
  • That said, if the poet writer is genuinely trying ideas seen in professional writers’ works (or studied in class) but making it walk to the beat of her own drummer, encourage that and explain why it is working or why it is not quite there yet. This might be one of those poetry terms everyone is immersing in or it might be as simple as unusual word pairings that have been noted in other poems.
  • Remember to gently warn writers off the habit of unintentional plagiarism. This happens when students accidentally insert a key word or word, idea or ideas, seen in an exemplar. One way to say this is, “Although this allusion to Eden is cool, it’s too similar to what Frost did in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay.’ See if you can write about lost innocence in a different way, one you think no one has thought of before. What does it look like to you, lost innocence? Using your own experience might be a starting point for revision.”
  • Share what’s important to you and should be to the writer. The title. The “turning point,” if it exists (or if it should exist). The all-important ending. The consistency and effectiveness of the poem’s theme throughout. What you care about is infectious. It will help the writer to care about it, too.
  • Use the language of ethos. Be understanding, helpful, respectful. “I see what you’re trying to do here and it could lead to good things. For me, however, it’s not working yet because ______________. I think it might work if you use more ___________ or try to _____________.  To think of ways to do this, you might ask yourself ____________.”
  • Words and terms that should be heard early and often: specific nouns, active verbs, imagery, the five senses, unusual word pairings, alliteration, similes/metaphors, sound devices (specify), rhetorical devices (specify), unity, theme, importance, allusions, clarify, elaborate, economy of words, clichés (as in “toxic effects of”), assonance, consonance, mixed metaphors, anaphora, etc. These words / terms will be the same in most settings, but in a classroom setting may be unique to the instructor / mentor and her points of emphasis.
  • Explain why any language specific to the writer must also be universal to readers. The balance is important, so point out where that balance is working and where it isn’t (adding reasons).
  • End with on a positive note. Then, always extend an invitation to the writer. “Do you have any questions for me (us)? Is there anything I (we) said that you don’t fully understand?
  • Know that poetry criticism as a reader will, in the long run, improve your poetry as a writer. Done correctly, the marketplace of ideas fills everyone’s shopping bags equally.
  • Thorough and effective critiques are inspiring. When writers see that their works have been afforded the time and effort necessary to good criticism, they will respond in kind, roll up their sleeves, and really get to work on Draft #2. It’s the fact that there are readers out there, people who care, that makes a difference. What, after all, is a poem without a reader? A tree falling in a forest with no humans to hear it! Audience is essential, and writers should always have it in mind as they write.

The Tyranny in Novelty

ferrari

As a writer, it can be liberating to no longer feel the pressure to create something new. You know the voice: “Hey, you. Mr. Writer. It’s been a few days (weeks, months) since you wrote anything new. What kind of writer do you call yourself, anyway?”

A smart one, if you plow more writing time into revision. Writing is revision, they say, yet, too often, we heed the siren call of creating the new instead. It’s flashy and cool like a red sports car. It’s what makes us “writers,” a name easier to assume than live up to.

Compared to the red sports car, constantly revising the old looks like Dad’s Buick. You’re tired of that poem, story, essay, or chapter. You’d prefer not working on it anymore. You crave the sound of screeching wheels and the smell of burning rubber as the new little sports car fishtails once and jumps forward — forward into the future!

Here’s a hint about revision: the need is heralded by any given work’s rejections in the market place. Once it comes home to Daddy five or more times, it becomes a symptom instead of a piece of writing. An object of need.

Think of the market as a physician trying to tell you something: Stop creating new when you’re not quite done with old. Open your myopic eyes. Seek the imperfections that others are clearly seeing.

Revision can be leavened with “new,” too. Try novel ingredients by adding. Note a new look by deleting. Move words and sentences around. Make a sports car of yesterday’s wheels through the gentle art of reconsidering.

Liberate yourself from the tyranny of constant novelty. Think of revision as the color red, then, and — who knows? — maybe it will be read, then accepted by the notoriously negative marketplace.

Vroom-vroom.

 

 

 

Donald Hall on Poetry: Revising, Sharing, & Critiquing

Hall Book

While reading The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, I jumped to the “Postscriptum,” where Hall offers up some thoughts on poetry writing — and especially on poetry sharing with someone who could give competent feedback. In Hall’s lucky case, he was married to that person, fellow poet Jane Kenyon, until she died of leukemia at the ridiculously young age of 47. What follows are selected bits from Hall’s P.S.:

 

  • “Reading my things aloud a thousand times, I have become aware of language that works and language that has dead spots.”
  • “Most of my life, I have worked on poems each morning, fiddling with everything. I have crossed out a word and substituted another; the next day I have often returned to the first word, or found yet another. Or I have broken a line at a new place. Always when I finished a poem, I showed it to friends who told me if it was terrible, or at least suggested improvements. I did the same for them.”
  • After we married, Jane [Kenyon] and I worked together over each other’s poems. We did not look at early drafts — it’s a bad habit; wait until the poem solidifies — but when the poems felt done, each of us used the other as first reader. One day I would say, ‘I left some stuff on your footstool,’ or Jane would tell me, ‘Perkins, there are some things on your desk.’ (‘Perkins’ was me.) If I repeated a word — a twist acquired from Yeats — Jane crossed it out. Whenever she used verbal auxiliaries I removed them, and ‘it was raining’ became ‘it rained.’ Jane kept her lines clear of dead metaphor, knowing my crankiness on the subject. She exulted when she found one in my drafts. ‘Perkins! Here’s a dead metaphor!’
  • “Neither of us did everything the other said. We helped each other vastly. She save me from a thousand gaffes, cut my wordiness and straightened out my syntax. She seldom told me anything was good. Sometimes she’d say, ‘This is almost done,’ or ‘You’ve brought this a long way, Perkins.’ I asked, ‘But is it any good?’ I pined for her praise. It was essential that we never go easy on each other.
  • “People have long assumed that poets flourish when they are young, but for most poets their best work comes in middle life. Wallace Stevens said, ‘Some of one’s early things give one the creeps.’ A friend insists that no one should publish a poem written after eighty. I hope I wrote good things, young and old, but my best work came in my early sixties.”

Rules for Writers: A Baker’s Dozen

bake

Here are some suggested daily habits for writers. It’s OK if they are broken because that’s what resolutions in habits’ clothing are meant to suffer! Still, let us amuse ourselves as if rules are hard and fast:

  1. If you have little or no discipline around technology, keep a writing notebook. Buy the best damned notebook and pen / pencil you can find so the feeling is “right” every time. Then write every time.
  2. If you have some semblance of discipline around technology, when you log on to the computer, click the WORD icon to write before you click the BROWSER icon to see who emailed you or replied to or liked or retweeted you on social media.
  3. In fact, be anti-social media. Social media might work (some) for the business side of writing, but it does little if anything for the writing side of writing.
  4. Listening to music as you write is OK, but only if it doesn’t distract. Distraction = singing to the words of a song while you’re writing your own personal epic. For me, classical works. Songs with lyrics do not.
  5. Drinks like coffee while writing, good. Drinks like beer, wine, or hard alcohol, bad. Food for thought, good. Food for love handles, bad.
  6. If you have a burning idea, kindle that new fire first. Otherwise…
  7. Always reread what you wrote the day before so you can revise it under fresh eyes. Did you know you grow a fresh pair of eyes each night when you sleep? This idea is revisionist like much of history these days, but it’s true, Virginia: Revisionist eyes are a writer’s best friend (sorry, pooch).
  8. Reread your work aloud. Good writing, be it poetry or prose, sings. It is music. It is long and short. It is repetition that doesn’t sound repetitive, but rather like a refrain.
  9. Reread again and again (and again) across the days. Those fresh eyes are an opinionated lot like Congress. Hopefully they can accomplish more, but the point is, revision is more marathon than dash. You may change a word back and forth 23 times. It doesn’t mean you’re indecisive; it means you’re doing your job.
  10. When you think you’re finally done, think again.
  11. If you’ve ever cringed at a work of yours that was published, hang it up over your computer or writing notebook as a reminder of #10.
  12. Remember that rules work and don’t work, depending on you. The French loved Jerry Lewis. The Americans, not so much. In either case, comedy survived because different criteria work in different ways. So write. Reread. Revise. Repeat without lathering or rinsing. And only after you love, love, love what you wrote after 30 musical rereadings aloud across 30 musical days aloud, submit.
  13. Finally, submit to a market you’d be proud to see your name attached to. If printed, hold a copy of the journal or magazine. If online, view a copy. If you’re not wild about the editor’s choices, pass. If you object to the size of the font, pass. If you love both the look and the company you’ll keep, go.

Damned* Adjectives II: The Sequel

dean young

Yesterday’s game was such a mad success with online poet-gamers and poet-grammar lovers (in both cases, their numbers are legion) that I thought I’d follow up with a contemporary poet, the wildly creative Dean Young.

The first version of his poem below, “Hammer,” features highlighted adjectives. Some of them are his adjectives and belong. Some of them I have added, to see if you can pick them out as superfluous for all the reasons adjectives can BE superfluous (and I love describing adjectives  as being unnecessary by using adjectives–first “superfluous” and now “unnecessary.”

In any event, Young’s actual poem is a scroll-down below, so no cheating. Just pencil down the bad boys (my imposters) and tally up your score.

 

“Hammer”
by Dean Young

Every Wednesday when I went to the shared office
before the class on the comma, etc.,
there was on the desk, among
the notes from students aggrieved and belly-up
and memos about lack of funding
and the quixotic feasibility memos
and labyrinthine parking memos
and quizzes pecked by red ink
and once orange peels,
a claw hammer.
There when I came and there when I left,
it didn’t seem in anyone’s employ.
There was no room left to hang anything.
It already knew how to structure an argument.
It already knew that it was all an illusion
that everything hadn’t blown apart
because of its proximity to oblivion,
having so recently come from oblivion itself.
Its epiphyses were already closed.
It wasn’t my future that was about to break its reedy wrist
or my past that was god knows where.
It looked used a number of times
not entirely appropriately
but its wing was clearly healed.
Down the hall was someone with a glove
instead of a right hand.
A student came by looking for who?
Hard to understand
then hard to do.
I didn’t think much of stealing it,
having so many hammers at home.
There when I came, there when I left.
Ball peen, roofing, framing, sledge, one
so small of probably only ornamental use.
That was one of my gifts,
finding hammers by sides of roads, in snow, inheriting,
one given by a stranger for a jump in the rain.
It cannot be refused, the hammer.
You take the handle, test its balance
then lift it over your head.


 I needed a little help with the word “epiphyses,” so I jumped to the American Heritage Dictionary site, which told me it was “the end of a long bone that is originally separated from the main bone by a layer of cartilage but later becomes united to the main bone through ossification.”


As the adjective would tell you, Dean can be quite erudite in his vocabulary.


OK, then. Let’s see how you did. Below is Dean Young’s “Hammer” as it should be. Hopefully you removed and dropped into your wastebasket for superfluous words (every poet should have one) all unnecessary words.


“Hammer”
by Dean Young
Every Wednesday when I went to the shared office
before the class on the comma, etc.,
there was on the desk, among
the notes from students aggrieved and belly-up
and memos about lack of funding
and the quixotic feasibility memos
and labyrinthine parking memos
and quizzes pecked by red ink
and once orange peels,
a claw hammer.
There when I came and there when I left,
it didn’t seem in anyone’s employ.
There was no room left to hang anything.
It already knew how to structure an argument.
It already knew that it was all an illusion
that everything hadn’t blown apart
because of its proximity to oblivion,
having so recently come from oblivion itself.
Its epiphyses were already closed.
It wasn’t my future that was about to break its wrist
or my past that was god knows where.
It looked used a number of times
not entirely appropriately
but its wing was clearly healed.
Down the hall was someone with a glove
instead of a right hand.
A student came by looking for who?
Hard to understand
then hard to do.
I didn’t think much of stealing it,
having so many hammers at home.
There when I came, there when I left.
Ball peen, roofing, framing, sledge, one
so small of probably only ornamental use.
That was one of my gifts,
finding hammers by sides of roads, in snow, inheriting,
one given by a stranger for a jump in the rain.
It cannot be refused, the hammer.
You take the handle, test its balance
then lift it over your head.
Dean Young, “Hammer” from Skid. Copyright © 2002 by Dean Young.
———————————————————————————————————————————

That’s right. I added but one adjective to the original: the word “reedy” before “wrist” in the line “It wasn’t my future that was about to break its wrist.”

How’d you do? Better than yesterday? Remember, a good poet leaves necessary adjectives — ones that carry their weight — and, during revision, weeds out the reedy ones, such as all those blue skies and puffy clouds and green grasses. This is where I say, “Class dismissed!” Oh, and have a day! (Let’s assume the “good,” shall we?)

Damned* Adjectives (Again)

phil larkin

It’s easy–too easy–to damn adjectives all to hell and preach the Word: Thou shalt scorn both adjectives and their brothers-in-crime, adverbs, when writing and revising poems. But the truth of the matter is less black and white and more perplexingly gray.

So assign your poet writers-to-be (or, more wisely, yourself) the task of writing poems without these modifiers all you want. It’s a great assignment, yes. It’s push-ups and jumping jacks before your physical endurance feat, too. But it ain’t going to be what most poems are: verse rife with adjectives that pay their freight.

Ah. As my boy Will (Shakespeare to you) once wrote: “There’s the rub.” When your revisionary eye turns to the task of revising, you can’t just take the delete button to every adjective you see.

Sure, it’s a great exercise in Zen extremes, but your poem will be left shivering in the cold of the white screen, begging like Oliver (“Alms for the poor?”), and wondering what draconian school YOU went to for your feral MFA.

Let’s play a game and see how the pros do it. Below is a Philip Larkin poem that’s been messed with. Some of the adjectives are Phil’s and some are added by me, but all are in bold print.

See if you can identify the bad boys from the good. Don’t scroll down because the original appears below. Play the game first on the honor* system! (And imagine if I deleted the adjective “honor” from that request!)

Wild Oats (Not the Original, However)
by Philip Larkin

About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked—
A bosomy English rose
And her studious friend in specs I could talk to.
Fresh faces in those days sparked
The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt
If ever one had like hers:
But it was the frowsy friend I took out,
And in seven years after that
Wrote over four hundred letters,
Gave a ten-guinea ring
I got back in the end, and met
At numerous cathedral cities
Unknown to the English clergy. I believe
I met beautiful twice. She was trying
Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.
Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an unstated agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn, 
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt.
In my wallet are still two snaps
Of bosomy rose with svelte fur gloves on.
Unlucky charms, perhaps.

 

More adjectives than you’d expect, given the notorious nature of these parts of speech. Now take a look below to see how you did. How many Larkin adjectives got the axe in your version? How many Crafty ones passed muster and were left alone? Add them together to get your score. The higher the score, the more you need to ponder the point.

 

Phil’s original, then:


Wild Oats
by Philip Larkin
About twenty years ago
Two girls came in where I worked—
A bosomy English rose
And her friend in specs I could talk to.
Faces in those days sparked
The whole shooting-match off, and I doubt
If ever one had like hers:
But it was the friend I took out,
And in seven years after that
Wrote over four hundred letters,
Gave a ten-guinea ring
I got back in the end, and met
At numerous cathedral cities
Unknown to the clergy. I believe
I met beautiful twice. She was trying
Both times (so I thought) not to laugh.
Parting, after about five
Rehearsals, was an agreement
That I was too selfish, withdrawn,
And easily bored to love.
Well, useful to get that learnt.
In my wallet are still two snaps
Of bosomy rose with fur gloves on.
Unlucky charms, perhaps.


Of course, you are free to question even the greats. Is every adjective necessary in this poem? Does it depend on the poet? On the style? On the poem’s point?


Clear* as mud, as they say (in a useful-adjective kind of way).

Work in Progress — A Better Way

wip

We all know the joke by now–the sign on the road reading MEN WORKING. It’s how we learned the word “oxymoron” as the car sped past workers in hardhats leaning on shovels, sipping Dunkin Donuts coffees, chatting each other up.

“Work in Progress” is another matter, one with greater meaning and impact. As my third poetry manuscript grows (though not in Brooklyn), I’ve changed my approach. With the first two books, The Indifferent World and Lost Sherpa of Happiness, I created a folder on my computer and then created separate docs for each poem within them.

With this one, I smartened up. The folder is called “Work in Progress,” and it is a single doc containing ALL the poems as I go along. I keep them in the order I wrote them, leaving any new arrangements for the day when I’ve mustered 45 or more–about the number you need to call it a poetry collection as opposed to its little brother, the chapbook.

The advantage to this approach has proven to be huge. Why? Often I’m not in the mood to work on my most recent poem because it is frustrating me. In the past, I would seldom click other docs to look at other poems in the collection. Instead, I would avoid the frustration of the recalcitrant new poem by reading a book or, worse, the online news.

Now? I open up the “WIP” doc and am faced with the first two poems I wrote every time. “Oh, yeah,” I feel like saying. “You guys!” I scroll down and see the whole parade of so-called “finished” poems.

Revising is my middle name (thanks, Mom). It is also the lifeblood of poetry writing. Using this system, I find myself tinkering, changing, and–blessed be!–deleting entire lines and stanzas of poems I had considered “done.”

A couple of times, I’ve taken on the revision task of working on each poem in order until I worked my way back to the present poem. More often, as a warm-up, I find myself reading random poems in the “Work in Progress.”

Interestingly, I often change a word in a poem one day and then change it back the next. Must be the different light on Tuesday vs. Wednesday, but over time and with enough looks, I settle on a word I like better, even though I could go either way.

The revision practice of a “Works in Progress,” all-in-one-doc approach has also reined in my habit of sending babies to market prematurely like so many poor Oliver Twist waifs. Now when I send poems, they’re a sturdier lot, more fully grown and refined. It’s even emboldened me to submit to tougher markets, what the going-to-college kids would call “reaches.”

Though it came about by accident and through convenience, the new method has won me over. It works. It keeps the whole brood of babies in front of me. And, after a few days of revision, I’m all refreshed and ready to tackle that tough poem I’ve been ducking–the one that used to send me to all the bad news on the virtual front pages.

 

 

The Art of Writing a Poem’s First Lines

koos

In his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser writes, “The titles and first few lines of your poem represent the hand you extend in friendship toward your reader. They’re the first exposure he or she has, and you want to make a good impression. You also want to swiftly and gracefully draw your reader in.

“Too often it seems as if, in the poet’s first few lines, he or she is writing toward the poem, including information that is really not essential but is there because it was a part of the event that triggered the poem. It’s the background story, and it may not be necessary for us to know it to appreciate the poem.”

Taking Ted at his word, you can spend days working on your opening lines alone. That’s the good news. The bad news is, you may still have a problem. Ted adds, “One caution, though: We can spend so much effort on our opening lines that sometimes they turn out to be the best part of the poem. We polish and polish and polish them until the rest of the poem feels weak by contrast.”

Beginnings and endings. It doesn’t matter the genre, they tend to bedevil writers more than any middle ground. How do we get the reader’s attention? How do we quickly establish a voice? As for the ending, there has to be something about it–some exclamation point, some brilliant turn of phrase, something unexpectedly delightful.

Is that asking too much?

To put opening lines to the Kooser-standards test, I randomly pulled ten poetry books from my shelf, then randomly opened to a page. Here are ten openings (first four lines). Which ones would YOU say best follow the Kooser rules?

  1. Of memory, the unhappy man’s home. / How to guess time of night by listening to one’s own heartbeat. / Why we can’t see the end of our nose. / On the obscurity of words and clarity of things.
  2. Brooklyn’s too cold tonight / & all my friends are three years away. / My mother said I could be anything / I wanted–but I chose to live.
  3. Here is a coast; here is a harbor; / here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery: / impractically shaped and–who knows?–self-pitying mountains, / sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery
  4. Stress of his anger set me back / To musing over time and space. / The apple branches dripping black / Divided light across his face.
  5. Our talk, our books / riled the shore like bullheads / at the roots of the luscious / large water lily
  6. He climbed to the top / of one of those million white pines / set out across the emptying pastures / of the fifties — some program to enrich the rich
  7. Into the mute and blue- / green marble mailbox my dust deserves to go, / though not for that which I’m going. / I deserve to go, and not alone,
  8. In those days you could buy a pagan baby for five dollars, / the whole class saved up. And when you bought it / you could name it Joseph, Mary, or Theresa, the class took a vote. / But on the day I brought in the five dollars”
  9. Then my mind goes back to the summer rental, / the stairs down into the earth — I descend them / and turn, and pass the washing machine, and go / into the bedroom, one wall the solid
  10. Jaspar, feldspar, quartzite, agate, granite, sandstone, slate. / Some can be rounded, some not. / Some can be flaked, some not. / A person, too, holds her lines of possible fracture.

 

Granted, I did not seek out the best of these books, I just opened them and planted a finger on a poem. It so happens, of the 10 I picked in this manner, I could only recall one.

So, which is your favorite? Which did you prefer? If you’re looking for titles and authors, they are below. Any surprises?

 

 

 

 

  1. “Late-Night Chat” by Charles Simic
  2. “Thanksgiving 2006” by Ocean Vuong
  3. “Arrival at Santos” by Elizabeth Bishop
  4. “The Revelation” by James Wright
  5. “Club 26” by Lorine Niedecker
  6. “Fergus Falling” by Galway Kinnell
  7. “Ode While Awaiting Execution” by Thomas Lux
  8. “Buying the Baby” by Marie Howe
  9. “Sea-Level Elegy” by Sharon Olds
  10. “Jaspar, Feldspar, Quartzite” by Jane Hirshfield

The Story of the “Last Poem In”

benfranklin

As your publisher’s deadline approaches for the final version of a manuscript, decisions must be made. Is a poem too weak? And, if you pull it, do you have something stronger to replace it?

These sound like easy questions, but when you consider how unpredictable tastes in poetry can be and, more importantly, how difficult it is to judge your own work–especially when freshly written–they are anything but.

The story of the last poem in with my first book, The Indifferent World, is illustrative. I had been tinkering with a holiday-themed poem that suffered identity issues. Yes, the theme was post-holiday blues, but dark humor kept creeping in like the charred remains of a Yule log. I wrestled first with the poem, then with whether to pop it into the manuscript as a final switch. After sleeping on it, I opted to throw it in as a replacement.

That poem, titled “Black Dogs Redux,” was inserted deep into the book where it would be lost in the crush. But a funny thing happened. As reviews crept in, numerous readers alluded to “Black Dogs Redux” or quoted it. What was up with that, I wondered.

Like I said, illustrative. It seemed such an unassuming poem. A wallflower poem. A quirky-afterthought-to-some-of-its-more-noisy-neighbors poem. And yet, something about it invited comment, despite its dark secret as “last poem in” which, you might assume, would make it the “last poem worthy of comment.”

As the holiday is nigh once more, I figured I’d share it, warts and all:

 

Black Dogs Redux
by Ken Craft

The blue sad light is on again.
Maybe it’s the weather. Or the season.
Or the relentless grind of the quotidian.
Maybe it’s the “Is that all there is?” of the holidays,
where boxing ornaments, burning dried holly, and recycling
wrapping paper feels like picking up
after the dogs. The black dogs. Who heel all too well.
Orion has his astral-eyed pooch;
I have my black-furred dogs, loyal as shadow.

Walking backwards, man’s best friend is god, who has a hand
in this. That’s the sensation: the Great One’s hand applies
a slight pressure to my head, weighing me down.
The motivation to read? Nothing seems good anymore.
To write? I have nothing to say.
And damn Ecclesiastes anyway, it’s all been said.
Everything is vanity, all right, a striving after wind.
And like the Greek chorus, there’s this 33-degree rain
at 5 in the morning. Not the silent, deflected sound of snow
but that direct, cold ping running down the gutters of my spirit.

I adjust the sad light so the angle is better,
file rays in the blue facets of my eyes,
reshuffle them, come up with a deeper blue: slow, indigo
in scope. I can always sleep, but sleep leaves ash dreams.
I know exercise is an antidote, but I must first scale
the architecture of my own apathy. All those slivers under the fingernails!
It’s easier to eat ice cream that never judges.
Scoop of here in a cone of now.

Didn’t Ben Franklin say we should be well-rounded, after all?
He said a lot. And never once owned a dog.
Ben just donned beaver caps
and attracted lovely French ladies, who earlied-to-bed
when he was early to rise. Gay Parisian moths to a flame burning
with New World life, they were. Giggling in French. Obsessed
with their own dogged desires.

OK, so the thought of it gives a little lift. But just a little.
I’m too depressed for anything drastic.

 

Characteristic of last poems in, this one experienced the fewest revisions and perhaps it shows. Some readers admire the last lines of the second and third stanzas. But a few felt it should’ve ended after that third stanza, that Ben Franklin photo-bombed the poem much like Tom Sawyer photo-bombed the ending of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

So be it. Last poems in, flawed and honest, are what they are, much like the holidays. It’s the nature of the beast and, in any publishing process, there will always be final, rushed decisions. In retrospect, I still can’t say that it’s better or worse than the one it replaced (which I can no longer recall). Still, it’s fun to Monday morning quarterback.

What about Lost Sherpa of Happiness, you ask? What was the last poem in for that book? “Puddle Duck at Picking Time,” of course. On page 62, still quacking itself up.