How to revise a poem in 18 uneasy steps

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You approach the poem with a sense of dread and disappointment. The poem hates you, rightly, for underestimating it. You get a snack. Come back. The poem makes you tired. You try to take a nap. But you can’t really sleep. You read the first couple of lines again. You realize that it starts much too blandly; it needs to start where the action is. You look up a single interesting line in another failed poem and type it at the bottom of the page. You go back to the middle and type, “something about this friendship dynamic. I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Stop trying to describe everything. Please change this title, it’s awful.”

You go back to the first line. Phrase it differently. You must continually crush the desire to write a book report or convince the reader of your point. You must give up the idea that you even know what the point is. You pick out the two or three most vivid images or feelings. They make you think of something else… something you’ve thought for a long time, something you’ve been afraid to say. Fear! The fear feels good. You can’t lecture your reader when you’re afraid. You follow the fear. Now a whole cascade of things is happening. Time kind of collapses.

Now the poem has a completely different shape; you’ve said some things that you really like. The danger is that now you’re kind of in love with the poem, but it’s infatuation rather than true love. So you have to resist looking at it for a while. When you finally have some distance, the cliches stand out like plastic bouquets in a field of blown grasses. Oh! I hate that I wrote those cliches! You delete them with a feeling of righteous, destructive glee.

It goes on like that: keep reading the poem over and over; skim over the good lines and keep fiddling with the weak parts. Sometimes you realize that what you thought were good lines were actually clever lines masquerading as good lines, so now you have something else to fix.

At some point, the poem is at its peak. Unfortunately, this is also a very fragile moment. Because now you have to stop working on it. If you keep re-writing it, it will start the return trip to banality. Also known as “work-shopping” a poem.

So that’s revising – which is another word for “writing,” which is another word for “re-creating.” It’s an adversarial process, but adversarial in the sense of Jacob wrestling with the angel.

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