Q: I know teachers and writers always hail revision as a key part of the writing process, but beyond fixing spelling errors, I’m not really sure how to go about revising poetry; also, I’m not personally motivated. How and why should I bother revising? —Peyton, Appleton, WI
A: Teachers and writers are excellent resources for writing advice! You have probably heard them emphatically suggest revision because they’re aware the act of revising is perhaps the most important, and at the same time, the least utilized tool of beginning and veteran poets alike. Many of us are so impressed with how we are capable of writing verse “in the heat of the moment” (it is truly an awe-inspiring experience) we overlook the validity of or need for revision. While rectifying spelling and grammatical errors is definitely an aspect of revision, the process is respectfully more involved.
“Revision” literally means to see again. That second, third, or even fiftieth look at the poem is at the very heart of becoming a great poet, and great poets as varied as T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, and Mary Oliver are famous for producing poems through the act of multiple revisions. (Oliver has said she usually revises through forty or fifty drafts of a poem before she begins to feel comfortable with it.) Whether the poem was written without much effort or whether it was written through hours of long labor doesn’t matter; what matters is recognizing what is on the page as an unfinished piece of work that now needs and deserves your most conscious and honest appraisal.
For most of us, the difficulty of revision lies in the task of distancing ourselves from the origins of the poem. Without some distance, it is almost impossible for us to judge whether we have given sufficient detail to the elements needed to make the work whole—our perspective is too close to see all the details and how they fit together. Thus, it is crucial we get some space between ourselves and our poems before we can see our work clearly (with objective eyes). We must learn to approach our poems as “new” readers.
There are several ways of creating such distance. The first is to put aside the poem (literally walk away from the work) after the initial draft, and don’t come back to it for at least twenty-four hours. This kind of literal space/time distance will allow you to gain some objectivity that you may not have when you’re in the heated imaginative process of creation (you may even want to wait substantially longer, depending on your own ability to approach the poem as a new reader). Give yourself time to read your poem from not only a fresh perspective, but also an inquisitive one. Upon returning to your work, examine it and ask of yourself, the poet:
Who is the intended speaker of the poem? The easiest answer is you, “the poet;” but most writers know how common it is to wear masks when composing literary works. The beauty of art lies in the possibilities it presents to artists to adopt an array of varying masks completely different from our natural personas (We can decide to write from the perspective of an animal, a child, a soldier, a parent or a criminal when realistically, we are none of those things). Other times, the speaker is simply an amplified version of our actual selves (for example, many of us are shy, but poetry affords us the opportunity to own a voice more bold or honest). Either way, writers must identify this voice in their work in order to then determine if it upholds consistency throughout the poem.
Who is the intended audience? Like all art, poetry is twofold: it consists of the artist’s production and enthusiast’s consumption. Readers of poetry are, of course, your audience. But, is your audience more specific? Is your poem an argument, a dedication, an elegy? Are you writing for children or adults? Is your intention to generate exclusive pleasure in those who share your knowledge of something specific, or is the intention of your poem to enlighten those readers who lack such knowledge? If you know your audience, it’s also important to pay attention to what your audience wants, needs and expects from your poem. Even if you decide you don’t want to give them all of these things—which you don’t have to—considering your audience will make you a better writer.
Does the poem contain clichés that don’t work in a new way? More often than not, clichés fail to have an impact on audiences because they’ve been heard before…and probably numerous times! For many, the integration of clichés in poetry demonstrates a lack of creativity and laziness. The use of clichés can come across as a betrayal, since we go to poetry for unique and imaginative content. That’s not to say a poet can never incorporate clichés into his or her work. Sometimes clichés are beneficial for the same reason they can be so utterly detrimental: we are all familiar with them already. If you do plan on using a cliché, just remember you must be incredibly aware of your intent in using this overly-common language and the effect its presence will have on your audience.
Answers to the following questions necessary to ask yourself during the revision process may benefit from an actual “new” pair of eyes, so consider workshopping your creation or sharing it with someone you trust.
• Is its diction striking and fresh or drab and routine?
• Is the poem confused or obscure in places?
• Does the poem say something in a new way, or do you simply imagine that it does?
The best advice I can offer regarding revision is prepare to be surprised: the phrase that seemed just right yesterday or a week ago may reveal itself as completely out of place upon your return!
I hope this helps you understand and appreciate the importance of the revision process and provides you with tools to begin incorporating it into the production of your work. There is nothing wrong with falling in love with your own work; sometimes, it’s worthy of such love. But I guarantee you will love and appreciate your poetry even more, as it is with anything else in life, if you dedicate additional time and effort to it. Consider how much your poetry means to you: doesn’t it deserve your time, thoughtfulness and patience? Your work is worthy of a molding love—a love that knows how to look at it with an editor’s eye, a love that knows what questions to ask of a poem and isn’t afraid of answering those questions as honestly as possible. As an artist, you owe this to yourself, your craft and your audience. Best of luck!