Last night at the monthly meeting of To The Point, the writers’ group, we held a little workshop on revising poetry. I was leader/facilitator/major domo/Grand High Poobah, pick one. I daresay it went well – everybody there seemed to feel that the evening was fun and useful.
It was a revelation to me that I knew so much about revising poetry. I’d never thought of myself as someone who revised. When I mentioned a couple of weeks ago my reluctance to hand over drafts on a poet-for-hire gig, it was partly because I didn’t think I did drafts. I just wrote poetry or verse and tinkered with it until it worked. I didn’t spend a lot of thought on the process – I just did it.
Having to lead this workshop made me think in concrete terms about what I know of revision and poetry. Mostly it’s the same as what I know about revision and prose. Poetry is not merely a blurt of raw emotion onto the page, any more than prose is, at least, not if you want a readable piece. Just as you need to know what story you’re telling when you write a story, you need to know what you want your poem to say. Then you need to make it say that. You use the same tools you use for prose: vocabulary, structure, rhythm, sense, figures of speech, metaphor, simile and so on. You also use a few extra ones, such as rhyme (whether end-rhyme, internal rhyme or alliterative rhyme), meter, wordplay.
We brought poems that we’d written, and which we felt would benefit from revision. We read our poems, and then discussed what seemed not to be working, and how it might be made to work. Sometimes it was rhyme, sometimes sense or meter, sometimes simply word choice. A single word that didn’t fit with the rest of a poem might stick out and jar the listener. Sometimes a poem needed to be expanded, or trimmed, or expanded in one place and trimmed somewhere else.
I write my poetry longhand, not on the computer. I know that handwriting activates different areas of the brain than typing does. When I revise immediately – which I usually think of as just making the poem work – I call that “hot revision”. Revision done later is “cold revision”. I might look at a poem that’s been in my computer archive for six months and say, “That ‘but’ should be ‘though’, or maybe ‘and’.” Then I play around with it. Maybe I change it, maybe I don’t.
I also strongly recommend three important tools for poets: Roget’s thesaurus – the big one that doubles as a blunt instrument; a rhyming dictionary – my workhorse is the Penguin Rhyming Dictionary; a regular dictionary – I like the Oxford English Dictionary, the microphotographed edition with a bazillion words in it.
And, finally, keep your poems, even the misshapen, unrevised, that-didn’t-work ones. Keep them all together, in a book or a folder or on your computer. Whatever you do, don’t toss them out. I have some horrible, embarrassing stuff written when I was a teenager. I’m not going to be showing it to anyone, but I have kept it all. A few years ago I went through it and found three poems that I was able to rewrite and revise into something I liked now.
Maybe I’m not telling anyone anything they didn’t know, especially those of you who write poetry. Never mind – putting it down here has solidified it for me. And now I know what I know about revising poetry.