Giveaway winners and question: How the heck do you edit a poem?

Well, even though not all of you are as excited about National Poetry Month as I am a few of you did comment on the giveaway post and the winner is: Kelly!  I might still send a copy to Theric–out of pity–but I’m not so sure.  Congrats Kelly!

The next item of business is my question: How the heck do you edit a poem?

It’s been said that poetry is the most subjective kind of literature.  There are very few hard and fast rules and good poetry is mostly defined by intuition.  As a reader I agree with this and it makes me feel pretty good because it gives me an break when I am completely lost. But as a (hopefully-someday-this-title-will-truly-apply-to-me) poet it frustrates me.

Here’s a poem I wrote that I think has potential but didn’t fulfill it:

If I Could  (a poem for a meth-addicted baby)

If I could,

The first thing I would do is feed you.

I’d lift your thin and shaking body and hold it to my skin.

I’d let my breath wash over you and to the thrumming of my heart

I’d cradle you against my breast, nourish you with warmth

Inside and out.

I’d look into your steely eyes,

I’d run my fingers through your downy hair

I’d caress your cheeks, your toes, your impossibly tiny hands-

I’d hold them in my own,

I’d smell you and kiss you.

I’d revel in your  newness and eternity.


I would turn back all the minutes and months that are your life

and make them mine.

I’d be your mother and take you inside me.

I’d make you, protect you, start you all new.

If I could

I would be everything to you.

But I’m not and I can’t. I’m

a witness, a spectator, a bystander-

Outside your spirit,

Outside your body,

Outside your bassinette-

Your life, sterile, unmingled, is your own.

This is your struggle and I’m on the outside

Praying Something will make a difference,

Praying Someone will find a way in.

Even as I read this poem now it feels half-baked.  The writing of it met an emotional need for me and I enjoyed it but I don’t know how to move it out of the realm of my own head and into a place where others can find value in it.  Obviously the ending is terrible.  I’m also tempted to say I should just end it with the rhyming line, “I’d make you, protect you,  start you all new./ If I could/ I’d be everything to you,”  because the poem seems to fall apart from there.  I wrote the second half because I was surprised by my own hubris.  It shocked me that I felt that, if I could, I would override God’s will in someone’s life.  But maybe that’s a different poem.  I don’t know. Either way, the poem fails.  It gets all confused and preachy at the end–and preachy poetry is the worst.

So what do you do? How do you go back and edit your poetry? Is it different than writing prose? What kind of things do you see in LDS/ Mormon poetry that you wish  you didn’t?

p.s. I apologize for formatting issues. WordPress boggles my mind.

9 thoughts on “Giveaway winners and question: How the heck do you edit a poem?”

  1. Laura, the poetry I write is mostly according to strict forms (e.g., sonnets), which gives me a starting point for editing — if something doesn’t exactly fit the rhythm and rhyme and meter, that’s automatically where I have to start.

    Even with a freer form like yours, you can still start the same way. Read your poem outloud and listen to the sounds — is there a natural rhythm, and if so, does some line break the rhythm because it’s too long/short or because a the wrong syllable is stressed?

    Do sounds begin to annoy your ear? I mean, if there’s accidental alliteration or sibilance that draws attention in the wrong direction, experiment with different sounds.

    In your poem’s case, does the repeated “I’d” draw attentiona way from the baby and toward the speaker, and if so, would the poem be improved by eliminating the “I’ds” and beginning those lines with the verbs?

    Or, depending on whether you want to emphasize the warm and safety of what you want to offer, or the cold and uncaring universe the child was born into, you might experiment with synonyms that use m’s and n’s and l’s (soft, mellow sounds), or else sharp t’s and k’s that mimic the clicks and beeps of NICU machinery.

    Or you might experiment with images. Since you end with a prayer that Someone will find a way in, is there a way to work in images earlier in the poem that suggest the difficulty for ordinary mortals to get in? If the child is in a life support mode, then you might have tubes blocking your access, or there may be a glass wall between you and the baby. Or his hypersensitivity may lead him to flinch at your touch. Just something, anything, that emphasizes a barrier that you can’t breech.

    Do you need to tell more about the narrator? Why do you care about this baby? Is he a family member you feel responsible for? A child you want because you haven’t been able to have your own? You might be able to add to the reader’s emotional attachment to the baby, beyond the pity we feel toward an innocent sufferer, if the reader can add the narrator’s feelings to his own.

    Maybe there’s more drama to this than you’ve shown. You want to do these things, but what does it mean that you cannot? what are the consequences to the baby? to the narrator?

    Let me emphasize that *none* of these things are points where I think the poem necessarily needs work. They’re just illustrations of some of the questions I ask myself about when I’m editing one of my poems. I have to know how and why a poem — an image, a sound — works or doesn’t work, and not just rely on the thought I wanted to express.

    Hope this helps.

  2. That’s deep stuff Ardis. Thanks.

    I think you are spot on when it comes to the why’s of a poem. When I was typing this post I spent a looooong time trying to articulate the why. I had a lot of whys. I think that’s one reason why the poem meanders so much. I never could pinpoint what it was I wanted to say.

  3. Laura, editing poetry is tough. It’s so personal, and every word matters. If you don’t mind a few ideas on this great poem you’ve got here…

    1-I would consider cutting the “if I could” at the beginning of the first line, and “I’d” that is repeated a lot. The repetition does not seem to me to have a poetic effect, and it distracts from the great verbs you’ve got going on.

    2-Read it aloud and see what else you can condense. Make every word pull its own weight. Pay attention to the obvious that we always hear–prepositional phrases, to be verbs, etc. This is generic advice–I have not analyzed your poem with these things in mind. But I have found that it helps my own poems.

    3-I would end the poem after the line “start you all new.” I love the image of you taking the baby inside yourself. It’s powerful, strong, wrenching. Everything after that feels… redundant, somehow. I think if you strengthen that image and turn the two stanzas into one, ending with the meth-addicted baby inside you would be a great final idea.

    Official disclaimer: I’m such a novice poet, so you can take everything I’ve said and chuck it if you want. But those are some ideas for working with what you’ve got. Very nice writing.

  4. Congratulations Kelly!

    And yes, excellent points, Ardis and Emily.

    To be honest I dislike editing poetry even more than I dislike writing it.

    But I’ll add two things:

    1. The structure/form should affect the narrative and narrative should affect the structure/form. There needs to be a narrative movement to the flow of the poem.

    2. As we all know, I’m very keen on endings. Poets have a tendency to look for that killer phrase or image with which to end their poem. I think that’s very important, but that phrase or image also has to serve the needs of the narrative flow of the poem. And I’m using the term narrative loosely here. Even poems that focus mainly on images and impressions have some sort of movement to them.

    Both Ardis and Emily have suggested stronger endings to Laura’s poem, and I agree. In particular, I like Ardis’ call for more details and Emily’s suggestion to call with the striking image of starting the baby new.

  5. .

    I feel this is true of all writing, but especially poetry:

    It’s never finished. You might decide to stop at some point, but rewriting never actually ends in the sense of NOW it is PERFECT. Because it never is and it never will be. Trying to find the point of perfection will only be frustrating. So forget about an end point.

  6. Trying to find the point of perfection will only be frustrating. So forget about an end point.

    Too true, Th. I’ve come to consider my “end point” a sense of contentment that what I’ve written works well enough together to go public (as it were). Of course, there are times when I return to things I’ve written in the past that I thought were finished (then), but see (now) that there might be a better way to make it work.

    When I’m writing poetry, this better usually means brevity. After I submitted my first set of poems to Irreantum, Michael Collings, generous editor that he is, suggested (as he worked with me to get the poems ready to publish) that focus and compression are keys to creating successful poems. That suggestion, I think, served as a turning point in my writing.

    Now when I’m working on a poem (or any writing, but poetry especially), I try turn the innovative phrase, but turn it succinctly; make it tight. To compress experience into the poetic vessel so when I light the fuse and release it on the world, it will explode in the reader’s face, the concussion will reverberate through the bones.

    In this light, Laura, I echo the suggestions that have been made here for “If I Could.” Cut out any excessive adjectives and adverbs (which are, in many cases, far over-used—why “impossibly tiny hands” when “tiny hands” will do and carry, perhaps, a greater impact?) and test to see if the line will read the same, perhaps better, with fewer articles.

    As for endings, I’m all for leaving things wide open. Too many poems (and stories and essays, for that matter) add a little too much. Even some really great poems I’ve read (I think of a few in Javen Tanner’s, Curses For Your Sake) just hang on too long. As in the ending to this poem, “Otaua, New Zealand 1994”: describing the interaction between Maori women working in the kitchen, the poet says,

    Their easy
    kitchen banter lifts into song

    seamlessly omitting Maori phrases
    over time: one picks up her cue
    as she stirs the watercress,

    another laughs as she flays
    light flesh off pork bones,
    a third pretends to look

    for something in the pantry.
    Alone, she rubs
    an unseen moko from her chin [and I think it could end well here, but he goes on]—

    her grandmother’s tatoo,
    continually haunting
    her bottom lip. (lines 14-27)

    This ending, IMO, sentimentalizes the poem, makes things a little to easy for me. Sure, if he’d left it at “Alone, she rubs / an unseen moko from her chin,” I’d have to go looking for what a moko is (that is, if I didn’t already know). But that’s what Google’s for, isn’t it?

    Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough.

    Focus, compression, open-ended endings. That’s all.

  7. .

    When I’m writing poetry, this better usually means brevity. After I submitted my first set of poems to Irreantum, Michael Collings, generous editor that he is, suggested (as he worked with me to get the poems ready to publish) that focus and compression are keys to creating successful poems. That suggestion, I think, served as a turning point in my writing.

    His own work provides excellent examples of this. He’s one of my favorites.

  8. Thanks for all the input, folks. My intent in posting this was not supposed to be just an embarrassing plea for artistic help but ALSO I was hoping other aspiring poets would find some good advice here. I’m toying around with all your ideas–we’ll see how it turns out 🙂

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