Poets, are your rough drafts piling up?
Maybe some draft poems seem to have potential: a strong opening. A resonant image. A metaphor that shines. And yet, something’s missing, and you can’t quite pinpoint the problem.
Or perhaps starting new poems seems easier than puzzling through the old ones. What can you do about an ending that feels too predictable? A draft that falls flat after a bold first stanza? A poem of lush description that remains opaque?
Here are a few suggestions to reinvigorate your revision process.
Scrutinize the interplay between “showing” and “telling.”
Workshops have popularized the mantra, “Show, don’t tell.” But novelist Colson Whitehead claims we need both modes—to show and tell. You might think of these aspects as a weight and counterweight in your draft work, or—as poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi once described different craft strategies—as the adjustable qualities on a stereo’s graphic equalizer. How can you modulate showing and telling to best suit your material? If parts of your poem seem verbose, try condensing so you can leverage sensory details a bit more fully. If portions of your poem are difficult for your readers to understand, you may want to turn up the “telling” or narrative mode to flesh out what you want your audience to take away from the poem.
Ask yourself, “What’s at stake in this poem? By the end of the poem, what do I want the reader to take away?”
In other words, how do you invite your reader’s interest and investment in the poem’s unfolding drama? How do craft and content come together to create some level of engagement? Often, discovering what’s “at stake” means sitting with our draft poems long enough to discover what emotional truths might be emerging. There’s a reason we feel compelled to make an utterance in the poem, and discovering both the “what” and the “why” behind that could help us better understand how to orchestrate a particular journey for our readers.
Try writing past the end of the poem.
Ending a poem can be challenging! Many of us feel an urge to close our poems with a sense of tidiness even if our material doesn’t call for that. If your ending feels too pat or predictable, try writing past your current ending to see if you can discover what your material might want to reveal when you dig a little more deeply. See if there are ways to complicate your ending in ways that feel authentic to your material—perhaps with a greater interplay between finality and openness, ambiguity, and/or resistance to closure.
Experiment with your structure to explore different ways to establish and sustain tension.
Try restructuring your poem entirely—make the last few lines your opening lines and experiment with what might follow. Or try stacking all of the lines of the poem in reverse order, smoothing them out as needed. Along the way, try to identify the poem’s sources of tension: when and how do you establish it? How do you sustain it? Which parts seem weaker in this regard, and how might you strengthen or intensify them?
Think about how your poem’s content might speak to received forms.
In their anthology, The Making of a Poem, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand organize poems into “verse forms” with specific formal constraints (such as the villanelle, sestina, pantoum, sonnet, etc) and the “shaping forms” (elegy, pastoral, ode, etc.) with particular traditions around themes and content. In your revision process, try to envision your poem taking on the architecture of a verse form or shaping form (or borrowing key elements—for example: a volta, a refrain, an interplay of what Strand and Boland call “sweet dream” and “rude awakening” in their discussion of pastoral poetry). If there’s some aspect of your rough poem’s craft or content that seems to gesture in that direction, experiment: write a version of your piece as a sonnet, a villanelle, or a pastoral. Even if your poem doesn’t ultimately take on this final form, you may end up generating some new material that informs your polished version.
Hoping to generate and revise more draft poems? Interested in expanding your writing practice to explore both “verse forms” and “shaping forms” more deeply? Join me for my 8-week Poetry II class, in which we’ll focus on various poetic forms and their formal and thematic traditions, and practice the art of revision.
Dilruba Ahmed is the author of Bring Now the Angels (Pitt Poetry Series, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020). Her debut book of poetry, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf Press), won the Bakeless Prize. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Her poems have also been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2019 (Scribner), Halal If You Hear Me (Haymarket Books), Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Indivisible: An Anthology of Contemporary South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas), and elsewhere. Ahmed is the recipient of The Florida Review’s Editors’ Award, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and the Katharine Bakeless Nason Fellowship in Poetry awarded by the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. She holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.