on revision: darlings, poetry hairballs, getting better gas mileage, and surgery. or, the useful.

I realize using a butterfly is a tired cliche but cut me some slack it's five in the morning. Public domain from wikimedia.

There’s a quote that’s important in my life. It goes like this:

“The most important thing is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”

This quote comes to us from W.E.B Du Bois, and I think it’s a good quote to keep in mind in life and in revision. Not that I am always very good at it. The giving up can be scary in both realms. But if we think of life and writing as a journey of exploration, it becomes easier to open ourselves (and our poems) to new and different possibilities.

For revision, we think of it this way: The most important thing is to be ready at any moment to give up what your poem is for what it might become. Here are some ways of exploring possibilities that have been particularly helpful to me in the journey of revision:

the orphanage for darlings  You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it: kill all your darlings. In other words, get rid of the lines and phrases you’re head-over-heels in love with. But here’s the thing: some of the darlings are worth keeping, if not in your draft, then on a page at the back of your notebook. This is a trick: your heart breaks a little less if you know you can keep that darling somewhere. And you never know… you might get to use some of the darlings in future poems. I’ve had that happen more than once.

revise in waves  I’m pretty sure I got this tip from Sandy Longhorn’s blog (thank you Sandy). Revising in waves just means to structure your revision around craft elements: today I’m going to look at verbs (or linebreaks, or vowel sounds). I’ve also found it helpful to group poems that belong together into waves for revision. For example, I’ve grouped all the mail order bride poems together for revision in order to capture her voice again across the set of poems.

free-write or journal about the poem  I suppose this could be thought of as meta-revision. When I’m stuck on a poem, I’ll often grab what feels like an important line and use it to begin a free-write, repeating that line whenever I get stuck in the free-write. I’ve also journaled about what’s important in a draft, or why I wrote a draft, or what I think the poem wants to become. Stream of consciousness is important here. Both of these strategies have helped me to get un-stuck during revision.

hammer it into a form This advice comes to us from Maxine Kumin, who wrote about this strategy in her introduction to her po-friend, Anne Sexton’s, Complete Poems. You will be amazed at what the constraints of a form can draw forth. Even just hammering a draft into rhyming couplets can get you past a revision roadblock. Try sonnets, pantoums, ghazals (which seem easy, but then they’re not, right?). You may, in the end, abandon the form — but you may also get that one phrase, image, or string of vowels you need for the next version of the poem.

use etymology  Use an etymology dictionary to learn more about the origins of key words in the poem. Many times, this trick has helped me to figure out how to hone the poem’s language for a purpose. Many other times, it has helped me to figure out that I needed to drop one word or another. My favorite etymology dictionary is The Barnhart Concise, but this online site is a fine place to start.

get there quicker  I can’t remember now where I learned this trick. But here’s what you do: you find the emotional center of the poem — the place where the poem announces (directly or indirectly) what’s at stake — and then get there quicker, by cutting words and lines that come before. This helps us get rid of what I call “poetry hairballs” — you know, the throat-clearing we all sometimes do at the beginning of poems. And speaking of which:

pay close attention to title, first line, and last line These three places in the poem have a large impact on its success. They should work for a clear purpose, and get excellent gas mileage. Make sure you understand why and how the title, first line and last line are working (or not working) in your poem. And speaking of endings:

use your ending to usher the poem into its next moment  As a general rule, endings that are tied up tight with a bow are not as effective as endings that remain open, allowing the reader to shove off from the shore of a poem and go for a little row around the lake of his/her life. NB: This advice does not apply to you if you are Lucille Clifton writing this poem.

use details to ground your reader before taking flight  Have you read The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo? It’s a great essay, and it encourages us to give the reader their bearings before we take flight into the amazing heights poetry can inhabit. Here is a link to the essay if you’re interested.

be brave and cut much  These words come to us from my very first teacher of poetry, Tom Ruud. Get out the orphanage for darlings, and then start cutting. Cut anything you can bear to cut: explanation, setting, time, clarification, poetry hairballs, description, etc. Yes, this advice contradicts the triggering town advice above, but remember: revision is an exploration. You can always add things back in in your next revision, but you might learn something important about your poem by performing surgery.

limit punctuation  Too much punctuation in a poem can feel bossy and cluttered. Use line and linebreaks instead to control the pace of your poem, and its movement down the page. Here is a good essay on line by one of my fave poetry foremothers, Denise Levertov, known affectionately on this blog as D-Lev.

record and play back This tip comes to us from Diane Lockward. We’ve all heard the advice to read our drafts out loud, but Diane suggests reading the poem out loud, recording it, then playing it back. I’ve recently begun to do this, and I’m amazed at what I can hear that I couldn’t hear while I was simply reading out loud. I use the free, downloadable Audacity to record and play back.

the buddy system  When you’ve taken a poem as far as you can on your own, have one of your poetry buddies read it and give you their impressions. If you want, you can think of this as workshopping the poem (but that word can have negative connotations for some people, depending on their experience of workshops, so it’s entirely optional to think of it this way). Rules for the buddy system: #1 Don’t apologize for your work. This is harder than it sounds. It’s almost as hard as not apologizing to the babysitter for your messy house. #2 Get to know your reader. This happens over time, and it just means to keep their preferences and, well, pet peeves in mind as you take their feedback. For example, you might have a poetry buddy who abhors alliteration. She will probably tell you to remove the alliteration from your poem. It might be good advice, but it might not be. You make the final decisions. Which reminds me: #3 Don’t take every suggestion the workshop offers up. Ultimately, you are the gal (or guy) who has to figure out what this poem wants to be. It’s very common to get contradictory advice on the same poem from different people. Your job as poet is to understand what the poem wants to be, and help birth it. You don’t want a whole football squad in the delivery room, do you?

And finally,

understand the poem  Whatever choices you make during revisions, make sure you can articulate them for yourself and how they work for a purpose in the poem. This is not something that’s possible during the drafting of a poem; in fact, I think it would ruin the drafting process to bring the intellect to bear upon the process too early. But as the poem is crafted through revisions, you should be able to say why you’re making the choices you’re making.

Reader, we’re almost through our conversation on revision. I hope it’s been helpful for you so far. If you’re the philosophical type as I am, go through the list again and think about how each point can be applied in life (Be brave and cut much? I’m not talking about calories here. Use the buddy-system? Oh yeah). And stay tuned for the next and last installment on revision: the radical.

(**I’m updating this to add the links to other posts in the revision series: here’s part 1 — the philosophical, here’s part 1.5 — a little more philosophy, and here’s part 2 — the usual).

14 thoughts on “on revision: darlings, poetry hairballs, getting better gas mileage, and surgery. or, the useful.

  1. Molly,
    This is an excellent resource. I’ve never seen such a complete and concise set of revision techniques, and packaged in a practical, a d “do-able” manner. This is getting printed, bookmarked, and used. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful stuff!! I do (and advise) a lot of this, too. And I “revise in waves” now! And good peer critics can help you cough up (and discard) those hairballs! Thanks for this great post.

    • You’re welcome Donna. So glad these posts are useful to others — writing them has certainly helped me to focus my revision energies, too. Thanks for reading.

  3. Good advice, all. I see implications for life off the page as well. I’m undergoing a serious “revision” at the moment and the metacognition of the process is clarifying. 🙂

    • I think I’m sometimes better at using revision tips for life off the page than on… but, ever onward on both fronts, right? Best wishes for your life revision.

  4. Pingback: NaPoWriMo Day 11: The Poetry of Accomplishment | Put Words Together. Make Meaning.

    • Wow, Diane, thank you! I’ve had fun and learned (or re-learned) a lot by gathering all these revision strategies. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Pingback: on revision: surgery, funhouse mirrors, and abandoning ship. or, the radical. | the stanza

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