A friend who is usually a prose writer asked me recently how to edit a poem. I’ve been writing poetry for years, but how do I do that thing? Good question.Let’s be clear. I’m talking about a free-form poem. Traditional forms have a structure that provides scaffolding for revision. Free-form means the poet must create both a body that breathes and a heart that beats in time with the poem’s intention. What should this body look like? How should it sound when it speaks? How should it move on the page?
Okay, now I have intimidated myself. But my friend is waiting, draft in hand. So, what can I say, based on my own experience, that might be of help?
Here’s what I do. First, I read my draft aloud to myself. I want to hear whether the words have music, whether the music has meaning, and whether the meaning touches me. If the poem has a pulse, I proceed.
But where is the pulse located? If some part of a poem stands out—a line or an image that sings strangely in an otherwise flat landscape—I will likely move that part to the top of the poem. I try to never be afraid of major excisions. I discard more than I save.
When I edit a poem, I try to achieve a combination and arrangement of sound and image, word line and space, that will best express my intention. How does this work in practice?
The body of a poem may be squat or sturdy, slender or curvy; its parts may be compact or scattered; they may be easy on the eye or not—but what to say about the spaces? Oceans of white space make a poem into an island, or an archipelago. In free-form, the poet controls the ocean; she owns the islands, word, line and image; she can summon both sound and sense in pursuit of an idea, an emotion, a shared experience. Space also speaks. Listen to the space.
In free-form, all choices are possible: lovers’ couplets, or regular, reasonable stanzas; thoughtful fragments or (apparent) disorder—what do meaning and emotion suggest? What serves? The answer may not be obvious. Disorder can sometimes be best expressed as tension between parts.
I use rhyme a lot: slant, internal, organic rhyme to pull scattered thoughts together; sonic effects like assonance and alliteration to direct the ear toward meaning. Sound should serve the poem, either subtly or with more force. Sounds are seductive. I strive always to make sound serve meaning, to not get carried away with the music - but music also has force.
The poetic line is - usually - broken, but where to make the break? Clever fractures can give a single line discrete meaning, while keeping it connected to its siblings on either side. I will break a line for suspense, for tension, to preserve or confound expectation, to make a joke, or to make music—this is not an exhaustive list. To own the poem, be fine with the possibility of breaking every part every which way. Spoiler alert: you will never be done with this process.
Does the poem’s imagery have internal logic? Can I see the image in my mind’s eye? If I say my poem is a body, and then I say my poem is an island—can I bring these two images together in the manner of John Donne? No poem is entire unto itself, and no poetic element should resemble a severed limb. Unless that’s the point.
I read and read again. Where does the poem breathe—and where do I? What sounds awkward? If the ending doesn’t please, if it doesn’t punch, perhaps I don’t have an ending yet. I may try reading the poem backwards. Could be that my lines, or my stanzas, are in the wrong order. On the line between concision and confusion, I take out every word that’s not essential. Some, I put back. I keep what feels original, what shocks and surprises, what takes the breath away—
What is my purpose? On the exhale, only to connect.