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Annotations of a Chapter on Revision: Part II


As a follow-up to the post before this, here are the remaining annotations I made in the “Revision” chapter of Stephen Dobyns’ estimable book, Next Word, Better Word.

  • “Rilke said in a letter, during the writing of New Poems, that subject matter is always pretext.”
  • “A different sort of change of perspective is to write in other forms, especially sonnets, but also villanelles.”
  • “…in one’s readings, one should also seek out different perspectives, and read for contrast: contemporary, modern, nineteenth-century poems and before, and poems in translation from any language. To read only contemporary American poetry limits one’s sense of possibility.”
  • “When one changes from first to third [point of view], it puts emphasis on details that might have gotten short shrift when the poem was in first person.”
  • “…the poem may have a vague you who might be lover, mother, father, or friend. Such a usage only confuses the reader. Putting the poem in third person can clarify the nature of that you and help to show where necessary information is missing.”
  • “The Belgian novelist Georges Simenon once described his revision process as going through the manuscript and cutting out everything he thought beautiful, by which he meant anything self-indulgent. Be suspicious of what you consider the most successful parts of the poem. Just because a line is well written doesn’t mean it’s necessary.”
  • “The poem, among other things, is a piece of theater. That, too, needs to be reflected in the writing. Lines should have interesting words.”
  • “One’s use of small words — conjunctions, prepositions, articles, pronouns, and so on — may be necessary to form unaccented syllables to set against accented syllables, but a line made up mostly of small uninteresting words saps the poem’s energy. In addition, each line has to contain within it a reason to read the next line.”
  • “One must constantly go over one’s word choices to see if they connote or suggest a meaning one doesn’t intend.”
  • “In a classical sentence the most important words are the final words. This also creates energy as we try to anticipate what will happen. Are important words revealed too early in the sentence?”
  • “Likewise, the writer should restate his or her sentence in its simplest form — See Spot run. –and then compare it to the original. Are those extra words necessary?”
  • “The tone of the poem should be established at the beginning. If it changes later, it must be by design. Likewise, the range of diction — the word choice, or vocabulary — used in the poem must be established in the beginning. If some other sort of diction appears later, it can change the tone.”
  • “Generally, what we get in the first lines is the poem’s range in diction and tone. Any poem teaches us how to read it. This is how that teaching begins.”
  • “The line and the sentence can have a slightly different rhythm. The contrasting sound of both together is called counterpoint. Where the sentence begins on the line affects this rhythm. Some writers, such as Charles Simic, begin most of their sentences at the head of the line, which creates a sense of control. Many inexperienced writers begin their sentences at any available point, which creates a sense of the gratuitous.”
  • “To bury an important word in the middle of a line weakens the sentence. Emphasizing an unimportant word at the beginning or end of a line does likewise.”
  • “An enjambed line creates tension; an end-stopped line creates rest. A long sentence creates tension; a short sentence creates rest. Obscurity creates tension; clarity creates rest.”
  • “…any sound or rhythm within the poem can be repeated to create the expectation of a reappearance.”
  • “If tension keeps building without a rest — for instance, using one enjambed line after another — the reader may grow weary and turn away from the page.”
  • “If we come upon a double stress or a spondee, we assume the writer is trying to tell us something. Otherwise, why would he or she insert the emphasis? The same is true with a trochaic substitution. In fact any departure from the rhythmic norm can be used to create nuance.”
  • “A line made up of long-duration syllables and soft consonants will move slowly and seem long even if it is short.”
  • “Many synonyms of small words have the same meaning: someone, somebody; just, only; start, begin; seem, appear; out of, from; another, each other, etc.  These words are interchangeable, as are many others, and the addition or subtraction of a single syllable or noise can affect the rhythm.”