13 Ways to Revise a Poem

This semester, I have started teaching a writing and rhetoric class (thrilling! surprising! edifying! terrifying!) to first-year college students at my university.

Though we aren’t writing poems in the class, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on my own poetry writing process because no matter what genre you’re writing in, all writing has something in common. And of course, teaching a process gives one a fresh view of it.

As my students are exploring what it means to revise an essay (and also, discovering how much of the writing process consists of revision), I have been thinking about the ways people revise poems. About the way I revise poems. Part of this exercise is reminding myself how many different approaches there are to revision.

I made this list a while ago, but I thought this was a good time to share it. Lists like this one are plentiful, but I do think it’s useful to think about the kind of revision we forget to do (and I forget about a lot of these!).

  1. Double the poem. My writing game completely changed when I started to do this. If a poem isn’t working, you simply may not yet have written all of this. Generate some more lines—double the length of the poem—and then try tinkering with it again.
  2. Move the end to the beginning. Running along the same vein, this point gestures to the idea that making major changes can be the best way to move forward. You might just have been getting warmed up in those first lines. You may have written your best stuff at the end, once your thinking developed. Why not start with that?
  3. Highlight the best lines. Another way to cull out what you really want to say. Highlight the best of it, cut the rest, then start start again with a new, boiled-down draft (this is a nice one combined with strategy #1).
  4. Create word clusters. This point seems to help especially with long poems, multi-part poems, or series of poems. On a separate sheet of paper, make a list of important words from the poem, about the poem, or that you want to include in a future draft. I think this method pulls you back out into the brainstorm stage, which can help if you’re tired from the muck or the depths of tedious line-level revision.
  5. Transfer it into couplets. Tim Seibles taught me this one. Dividing everything into couplets during the drafting process means that you have more room to see the poem. It can also help you find the weak spots, since in couplets, every line is either the beginning or ending of a stanza.
  6. Memorize your draft. This strategy isn’t in vogue with every poet you meet, but I think it’s really helpful. When I lived in Milwaukee and walked about a half hour to work, I would spend the time memorizing poems that were sort of far along, but still needed some work. There’s something unique about the draft living inside of you. The poem’s sore spots and incongruities make themselves very apparent as you do the work memorization requires.
  7. Change modes (pen, computer, etc.). It must have to do with how our brains work: I think  most writers can attest that something deep is associated with the tools we use. I recently met someone who said she can’t write poems with a pen; she needs a keyboard. This made me think about how we all have preferences, but it seems that we can harness those preferences in the service of experimentation. This is all to say that an artist will create different works depending on whether she has a paintbrush in her hands or a slab of clay. A musician will be differently inspired depending on whether she holds a guitar or a saxophone. Poets are similarly influenced, and yes, we use instruments, too.
  8. Experiment with verbs. Sometimes “be” or “sit” are okay, but why settle when you can use “excoriate” or “demolish”? Highlight all of the verbs. Exchange each one for a verb more interesting.
  9. Remove the adjectives/adverbs. These kinds of words are notorious for clogging a poem. If you can eliminate them and the meaning of the poem doesn’t change, you don’t need them. Add something that matters. Make every word count.
  10. Alter the tense. Shifting a draft between past, present, and future can revivify a poem that’s gotten rusty. Weird, unpredictable, good things will happen!
  11. Change the point of view (I vs. you vs. we). Changing the POV may require a significant amount of work, and it often becomes a whole different poem. It is worth it. In addition to changing the POV, you may also decide to write a poem about the same situation or topic from an entirely different person’s voice. Another experiment I learned from Tim Seibles: write a poem about a topic/incident/anecdote related to one of your parents, told in your point of view. Now, write another poem about the same topic, but this time from your parent’s point of view.
  12. Read the poem out loud. Read it to yourself, even if it’s weird or awkward. Read it over and over. Read it at the open mic. Read it to a friend. Read it to your partner or pet. You are a poet; hearing the piece out loud is your right (and your advantage)!
  13. Read it backwards. This is a well-worn piece of advice, but for good reason. Starting with the last line, read the poem line-by-line from bottom to top. You’ll notice elements like patterns and themes that hadn’t surfaced for you previously.

Have you used any of these revision strategies? What am I missing? Let me know in the comments.

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