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August 16, 2012
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how to revise poetry

Journal Entry: Thu Aug 16, 2012, 9:27 PM





There a decent number of very talented poets on dA and, if you’re willing to dig hard enough, you can find some truly excellent work.

If you’re not willing to dig hard, but you still browse around casually in some of the better administered groups, you’ll likely stumble upon a few excellent works and a good number of good works that impress you but that don’t quite make the top grade.

And if you just browse around the poetry on dA, giving no effort to separate the good from the bad, a too-large percentage of what you’ll come across is what I call Conceptually Reductive Adolescent Pettiness, or CRAP for short.

The secret to writing better poetry, whether you’re a beginner or a frequently published poet, is in how well you revise. Like most creative things, a great poem is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The problem with really bad poetry is that it’s neither inspired or well edited (if it’s edited at all). That CRAP, well..... you know where it belongs.

What’s really sad, though, is that there’s tons and tons of poetry out there that does an OK job on the inspiration part but a terrible job on the perspiration part. The poet didn’t hunt hard enough for the right word and/or didn’t put any effort into making smart and tough choices while revising. This is, for me, the worst kind of CRAP. You’ve got something that could actually turn into a good poem, entirely CRAP-free, except the poet was so lazy that he or she never navigated their creation out of the CRAP-O-SPHERE (Conceptually Reductive Adolescent Pettiness-Online-Submitted Prematurely Heartwhingeing Exemplifying Rushed Editing) of bad poetry. As a result, their germ of a poem is nothing but Sucky Half-assed Inspired Trash, i.e., SHIT

Now, I know all you good writers want to leave the CRAP-O-SPHERE far behind. What’s wonderful is that you can! Learn the mechanics of revision and your poetry will jump up several notches in quality. You’ll be writing Figurative Language Ordered With Editing Rigor and Style (FLOWERS).

Wouldn’t you rather leave FLOWERS in your wake than spread SHIT everywhere? Unless you’re a farmer, the answer should be YES! So, without further ado, here’s some core editing mechanics that can make you a much better poet.


  1. Rip Out All the Poetic Language. Be Ruthless.

    
If you use words like “for” (to mean because), strife, thy, etc., please just stop. They are the mark of a beginning poet. Here’s why they’re terrible: they’ve been outdated for close to 150 years. You wouldn’t go to the beach wearing a swimsuit from 1860, would you? If you did, you’d be laughed at. When you use the pretentious poetic clichés of 150 years ago, you look just as foolish and deserve to be laughed at accordingly. There is not a single renowned poetry publisher, whether online or in book form, who wouldn’t instantly disqualify any poem exhibiting such haughty drivel.


  2. Review Your Adjective/Noun and Adverb/Verb Pairings.

    
I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. When we speak casually to each other, it’s perfectly OK to use the expected adjective with a noun, or the well-rehearsed adverb with a verb. Poetry is not casual speech. It’s all about precision and discovery. If you use the common idioms, clichés, phrases, etc., that we run into all the time, you will encounter 2 problems: A. You will not have described anything with any more precision than the common herd does on a daily basis. That’s a capital F failure. If you’re no more precise in your descriptions, explanations, etc., than the herd, you won’t have written poetry, you’ll have written Precision Under Sensory Standards verse, or PUSS for short. B. We want to learn and discover; we don’t read poetry because we want drab everyday awareness trotted before us as if it were special. We want the shock of the new, the excitement of enlightenment. Anything else is nothing more than FigurativelyAverageRepetitiousTrivia, or FART for short. 


    
Let’s look at some examples:

    • vast expanse - PUSS
    • walked hurriedly - FART
    • freak accident - PUSS, unless you’re talking about a freak who had an accident
    • outstretched fingers - FART
    • icy cold - FART
    • quaint feeling - PUSS
    • inside track - FART
    • true love - CRAP, SHIT, PUSS, FART. This phrase is meaningless. It has been so overused, it’s worn down like the bones of a hobo dragged for a mile behind a red Dodge Ram pickup with the ten cylinder engine and off-road suspension.


    I could add hundreds more examples to this list. Better, though, would be for you to keep your own list as you spot these in your reading. Keep them on a list and then make sure your final draft of anything doesn’t have any of this stale writing holding it down. Also: always remember that, in general, the fewer the adjectives and adverbs in your poem, the better it’s likely to be.


  3. Review Your Metaphors, Similes and Other Figures of Speech.

    
Overused figures of speech make up the majority of painful clichés you’ll come across in poetry. Let me say this as clearly as possible: don’t use a figure of speech you’ve seen before, anywhere. Your goal is to be a poet, not a Xerox machine of trite and tired language. (If, in fact, you do want to be a copy machine--then write a poem about it, as that’s kind of original, albeit weird as hell. But I’m not judging!)


    
Some examples of things to purge from your poetry:

    • as cold as ice
    • sly like a fox
    • hold the fort
    • the light at the end of the tunnel
    • dyed in the wool
    • wolf in sheep’s clothing
    • sparkled like diamonds
    • guiding light
    • talk your ear off
    • time will tell
    • ruby-red lips


    You get the idea. If it’s a figure you’ve seen before, it doesn’t belong in your poem. We want your original discoveries, not someone else’s retreads.


    
One other point: don’t just look for cliches. Trace through the logic of your figures of speech and make certain that the logic works. This doesn’t have to be mathematical logic; a poem can have its own logic, as long as it’s consistent. Many of you will be tempted to track the “logic of the heart.” Unless you have something truly original to say about it, don’t waste your time or ours.


  4. Watch for “No Fly” Words.

    
Just as the government has a “no fly” list for air traffic, you should have a list of words that you don’t allow to board your poems. Here’s some words that probably belong on your list:

    • love
    • life
    • heart
    • eyes
    • soul


    I’ve deliberately made this a short list to start out with. You should each add to your own lists over time. What you’re looking for are words that are overused, and especially words that mostly “tell” but don’t “show.” These words are on the no fly lists because they’ll sabotage your poetry, crashing it into the ground on a faraway plain that no one will ever visit.


    
The word “love,” for example, only tells. It can’t show anything. It has been beaten to a colorless, boring crêpe and indicates nothing. I had a poetry workshop in college where the (very well published) poet challenged the class to write love poems without the word “love.” His logic was that you need to prove your case to the reader. You can’t just make the claim that you love someone and expect anyone to give it any credit. Instead, you need to describe the reasons and details that cause you to love your significant other. Convince the reader that the love is real. 


    
This is incredibly hard to do well, and is perhaps the best challenge you’ll ever get, if you’re interested in writing love poetry.


  5. Review Your Emotions and Your Honesty.

    
Insincere poetry is CRAP with a huge side of SHIT. There are two questions you need to ask yourself when reviewing your drafts: am I being mature, and have I sold myself short.


    Maturity. It’s perfectly fine to give your emotions a playground in your poems. It’s legit to express feelings that aren’t the purest. Here’s the trick, though: you need to treat these feelings like a character in your poem, and be as true as you can to that character. However, remember that, while the feelings can be overly passionate, spiteful, immature, etc., the poem itself needs to be a worthy adult. 


    
Think of pretty much any one of Shakespeare’s plays...let’s take Hamlet, for example. It’s clear that the play loves Hamlet and even respects him. Yet the passions of Hamlet the character are not the passions of Hamlet the play. Hamlet feigns madness; the play doesn’t. Hamlet goes at least temporarily mad; the play is as sane as can be. Hamlet schemes and murders in his pursuit of revenge; the play treats almost all the characters with respect.


    
Your passions are like characters in your poem. Cherish them, treat them with great respect, but don’t let your poetic skills be overrun by them. You still have to control things like language, irony, form, etc. Your poem can’t cede those responsibilities to the “characters” it has welcomed as guests.


    Selling Short. When I am revising a poem, I concentrate carefully on every sentence, every phrase, every syllable, and every figure. If I work it hard enough, I know when I’m selling myself and the poem short by settling for an imperfect choice where something more precise or more expressive is needed. If at that moment I don’t have the words I need to make the poem right, I’ll mark that point as something I have to come back to. There’s nothing in my gallery that hasn’t gone through this process of revision after revision after revision until I think I’ve done justice to the whole poem. It has taken me years to develop the ability to spot pretty quickly wherever I’m settling... but this is something that anyone can learn to do.


    
My favorite poet, Don Bogen, winner of several awards including the prestigious The Discovery / The Nation Award, has written only 4 books of poetry in the last 40 years. They have all been brought out by top-ranked publishers and have all been well received critically. Why does he take so long to write? Because he sweats his poems until he has exactly the right word. He revises them like crazy until they are precise to a degree you would be surprised was possible. He has never sold one of his poems short by as much as a vowel, and he is recognized by major critics as a master of precision.


    
I’m not suggesting that you have to write as slowly as Don does. Rather, I think you should consider his example when you ask yourself how hard you are willing to work to make your poetry great, how hard you’ll sweat each line to make certain you aren’t selling yourself short by settling for language that doesn’t really capture the idea you are trying to express in a fresh, insightful way. If you whip something out on an afternoon and have uploaded it by later that evening, you might have something worthy of a good first draft and perhaps you’ll get valuable feedback on it. That’s perfectly legit. Please, though, don’t be so vain as to think you’re going to throw a perfect game without a lot of practice and revision. Your poem isn’t done until it says exactly everything you wanted it to say, and does so with great originality and verve.


  6. Slice Your Rhymes.

    
If you’re still rhyming like moon, June, spoon, lagoon, buffoon, life, knife, strife, wife, rife, red, bed, dead, head, Nantucket, bucket, etc., then it’s time to take your game up a notch. The problems with these sing-songy rhymes are legion: First, they’ve all been exhausted over and over again. Second, try reading a poem aloud with rhymes like this. You can’t take it seriously. It sounds like something written for little kids. Third, it tempts you to gerrymander the syntax of your poem in order to get the rhyming word in the right place. This is very, very bad form, kind of like cheating at golf right in front of everybody. If you have a line that doesn’t sound like anything you would ever say or write if you weren’t going for the rhyme, then that line is bad, and you should feel bad. Fourth: it’s outdated. Alexander Pope has come and gone, along with that lock of hair, and while we enjoyed his visit to the literary canon, we don’t exactly see the point of trying to rhyme like him. Even Shakespeare wrote blank verse for most of his plays, using full rhymes sparingly by comparison. (By the way, if you think blank verse and free verse have anything to do with each other, you’ve been led down the wrong path by a hairless demon. Learn the difference; they’re nothing alike.)


    
Rhyming is indeed wonderful, but it has evolved. Half rhymes (or slant rhymes) are the state of the art these days. They can be mixed with perfect rhymes as long as the sing-songy feeling doesn’t get rolling. In fact, much of the best poetry you’ll read today makes copious use of half rhymes and full rhymes mixed together.


    
Why are half rhymes so popular? It is NOT because they are easier to come up with; coming up with a good one is just as hard. The reason is that they are so much more natural, and so much more subtle, allowing the listener to joy in the fine nuances of our language’s sounds. 


    Here’s my recommendation: find a published poet you like who uses half rhymes. Read a book or two of his or her work to get a real feel for it. Then, as you read other poetry, try to notice the differences in sound effects, and keep exploring with different poets until you settle on some whose sounds you really like.


    
The whole question of sound brings my to my final core revision tactic…


  7. Read Your Poem Aloud, Several Times, Until it Sounds Right.

    
Hard as you might work, you aren’t going to catch everything that needs fixing by reading and rereading your poem to yourself silently. The first time you read it aloud, though, chances are there will be some things that stick out as obviously needing to be fixed. The rhythm might be awkward here or there, a word might be missing, a line break might feel all wrong. One thing that I often catch reading my drafts aloud is the use of a word more than once. Except for words like “a,” “the,” “not,” etc., I try to minimize as much as I can the repeated use of words, especially when they’re near each other. Your ear will pick up on unwelcome sound repetitions such as this pretty readily. To be sure, many kinds of repetitions are good in a poem, but you want to be in full control of this and not be making them unintentionally.


    
One other thing I look for is the rhythm. Whatever form I am using in a poem--even (or especially) when I’m writing in free verse, I like to syncopate sufficiently to keep things interesting and to add extra emphasis where needed. This is a really useful tool in making a poem interesting and lively. Not only do I strongly recommend learning how to do this, but also I recommend finding some music you like that syncopates a fair amount. Jazz is an obvious choice, but you can find examples in almost every type of music. For anyone who likes progressive rock like me, just study Bill Bruford’s drumming on Yes’ albums Fragile and Close to the Edge. This music may not be your cup of tea, but as a developing poet, it will teach you just how amazingly and creatively far you can go in syncopation while still carrying the flag for a formal rhythm.


    
Whatever your musical tastes, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you never submit a poem anywhere if you haven’t read it aloud.







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:iconsolaces:
Solaces Featured By Owner Nov 13, 2012
AND I am guilty of submitting things that may be considered word vomit, haha. I always worry I'm subjecting my watchers/groups to drivel, but often times they're nice enough to point out when something doesn't work.

sorry, I'll shut up now. I'm just very passionate about this particular subject.:la:
Reply
:icontonepainter:
tonepainter Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
I don't think the word "drivel" belongs in any sentence discussing your work. Consider it a "no fly" word in that context! ;-)
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:iconsolaces:
Solaces Featured By Owner Nov 13, 2012
Although, I do want to add...I've never really understood the concept of "No fly" words, as I believe any word can be used well. It just has to be the right, most precise word available. I do find that the word "soul" is the hardest word to work with, though. I always hesitate to use it, even when I think it's the word I want, because it is rather empty. But I would never ban it completely.

But I assume that's what you were going for too?
Reply
:icontonepainter:
tonepainter Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Yes, exactly. Once someone gains experience and confidence in his or her writing, it's perfectly OK to break all the rules, as long as you know what you're doing and understand how it will work out in your poem. So no word is ever really off limits...but beginners need to be sort of hit over the head with how overused and empty words like "love" can be in a poem, and they need to be pushed to find other, more concrete ways of expressing what they feel. That's the act of discovery that poetry is all about. If you just write the word, "love," you discover nothing.
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:iconsolaces:
Solaces Featured By Owner Nov 13, 2012
This is...wonderful. It's eloquent, non-pandering and--best of all--PRECISE!

I want to print this out and hang it on my wall.
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:icontonepainter:
tonepainter Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks! (and sorry for the slow reply) :blush:
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:iconmattvoscinar:
MattVoscinar Featured By Owner Sep 23, 2012  Student Writer
This...is incredible. You've inspired me to add a writing tips list in my own group. Hopefully you will do me the pleasure off allowing me to feature it. Too many writers need to read this.
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:icontonepainter:
tonepainter Featured By Owner Sep 23, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks so much... and by all means, please do!
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:iconmattvoscinar:
MattVoscinar Featured By Owner Sep 23, 2012  Student Writer
I appreciate that very much!
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:iconbeeinthebottle:
beeinthebottle Featured By Owner Aug 23, 2012   Writer
Damn! I used "soul" in "Two Minutes" -- and guess who faved it?

All your points are well taken; most of them I've learned in the writing courses I've taken over the past two years. I coulda just read this and saved a ton of money.
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