I believe a poem has a life of its own. As I write, I do not try to force it to go one way or another. I let the poem go wherever it wants and I let it go there until I feel like stopping.
Most of my poems have 10 or 12 drafts — some more. I have had some poems take me up to 15 years to finish. Egad! you think. If it is going to take such a long time, why am I doing this? Because when it feels finished, it is the best feeling in the world — better than sex, better than all the money in Fort Knox.
So, how to edit your poems?
Start like this…
Poems go through many stages in development —
First: Exploring. This is your beginning draft: where you start from. Maybe you just write down a few images or words that sound like they belong.
Second: Focusing. This is where you sharpen the unintentional ambiguity/private meaning/exaggerations and bring them into focus. One way to catch some of these is by reading your poem aloud as you write it. A poem should be like a seamless piece of cloth. If something sticks out, if it is a 50 cent word in a poem with all dollar words, it doesn’t belong. Out it should go. You may have to do this several times.
(This is where having someone you trust as a reader look at your work is very helpful. Not that writing poetry is a group effort, but it is useful to have a reader you have confidence in read what you have written. It is important that you do not ask them if they think you did this or that. The way to get the most out of their help is to ask them what they thought you were saying/trying to say. That way you are not “leading them” to say what you hope you were saying. You get the unadulterated truth, the whole truth and nothing but …)
Third: Shaping. Once you have what you think is a final draft — one that says what you want it to say, has strong images, your true voice, metaphor etc. you must decide how the poem looks on the page. Does it need short lines (good for poems that are emotional) or long lines (better for poems that are more on the intellectual side). Where do you want to break the lines? What about stanzas?
Re-read the poem aloud a few more times.
Stand up. Walk around the room. Put your poem in the drawer. Tomorrow look at it again. If it still works, Ta Da! If not, well, there is still work to be done.
NEXT WEEK: I will be bringing in one of my poems to show you how it morphed from draft to finished poem. Hope you find it useful.
Until then. Keep Writing.