By Shelley Widhalm
When I told one of my writer friends I was editing a poetry collection I assembled, he said, “I didn’t know you could edit poetry.”
You sure can, but first, to get something to edit, let’s think of poem creation, capturing an experience, thought, or moment in tempo, color, sound, and movement.
Poetry can be in free verse, open in structure without rhyme or a specific rhythm but with the beat of the music of poetry. It can be in a fixed form that follows the rules. There are constraints like syllable count, meter, and rhyme scheme to consider. It also can be a free form of prose poems, combining poetry and prose through a block of text written in lyrical language.
All three forms can use poetic devices. Tools such as alliteration, slant rhyme.
Poems also can be lyrical or narrative. Lyrical poetry is of a single image, thought, or emotion described in a snapshot or fixed moment in time. Narrative poetry tells a story with characters and a plot with a beginning, middle, and end.
Poems aren’t just about form and approach. They make sense of experience and the world, build associations, and excavate emotional and spiritual truths. The way these things are expressed comes out in a poet’s individual voice and style.
Poems Delve into Anything and Everything
Poems can be about any subject. Constructing poetry requires an imagination connection. Let go of the internal editor, think about what you want to express, sink into your imagination, and connect with the world of the poem.
“You’re receiving whatever comes,” said Bhanu Kapil, who spoke at a Regional Poets workshop, Writing the Poem Before It Arrives, in August 2018 at the Loveland Public Library. “We know some things that arrive and want to be written. How do we connect what’s inside with what’s outside . . . I don’t think the poem is something we can entirely control.”
Kapil’s advice was to keep moving while writing, letting whatever wants to come to the page to come.
“Even with a fixed form, you have freedom,” said Pattiann Rogers, a poet who led another Regional Poets workshop, “The Poetry of Earth is Ceasing Never/Wild Has Its Skills,” in April 2019. “Because of the freedom, you have to discipline yourself in different ways, so you have a piece of music. When you are writing without a fixed form, you have to pay attention to accented or unaccented syllables.”
Poems need movement for a reader to commit and a writer to be consistent. Stopping or slipping out of the moment may result in distraction, getting stuck, or avoidance.
Tips for Getting to the Poem’s Intent
- Think of the senses—that of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting—as the starting point for experiencing the poem. Use them to explain, describe, and express thoughts, ideas, feelings, and observations.
- Play with words and descriptions, simply putting words on the page and rearranging them to find the results.
- Create images to describe feelings and observations, employing metaphor and simile and using the senses.
- Amp up the rhythm, which is the beat and pace of a poem, often created from the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Repeating rhythms can add musicality to language while varying tempo can draw attention to a particular word, line, or image. Read the poem aloud to see if something sounds disjointed or doesn’t flow.
- Consider diction, or word choice, and how words are arranged. Opt for active over passive voice. Choose concrete language and specific details over clichés, trite words, generalities, abstractions, and vague concepts, like love, peace, and fun.
- Decide if more information will narrow or broaden the scope, getting up close or backing away from the subject. Are some details left out and arise that way, becoming more interesting since it’s what can be sensed or accessed? Are descriptions consistent and uniform throughout the poem?
- Show don’t tell, but with caution—sometimes telling is needed to get to the heart of what the poem wants to say or reveal, giving a quick emotional picture or landscape summary.
- Explore what the poem is really saying and ask questions to dig deeper, instead of thinking that’s enough after the first write-through. The subconscious may have made connections that present additional answers and lines of inquiry.
Tips for Polishing the Poem
Editing is the next step, likely after setting the poem aside for a day or two to allow for a fresh look. Give it an initial read to cut excess words that aren’t needed to carry the poem, tightening language and how it appears on the page. Avoid overusing empty words. Extra articles or prepositions often are not required. Cut or replace common adverbs or boring adjectives.
Though poems often break conventional grammar rules, don’t skip the typical editing to check spelling, mechanics, and consistent tenses. No matter the punctuation, make it is consistent and not overdone—sometimes, the end of a line can indicate a comma.
Tools of Poetry
Shape and Structure
The poem’s physical space on the page can add meaning and dimension to your words. Consider white space and placement of lines, stanzas, or couplets. Varying your sentence structure and line lengths can add punch and pizzazz.
Position your hook to grab your reader. Select powerful words and think about placement for better effect. Focus on movement from one line or stanza to another. Transitions can be critical to the heart of your poem.
Think about your ending. The destination is as important as the journey in poetry.
Use pauses, end stops, and enjambment to control how one line flows to the next. Choose words and rhythms to create deeper layers of experience.
Images, similes, and metaphors help create your messaging. Tone and voice communicate meaning. Don’t sacrifice substance for style. If a rhyme isn’t working, give it up. Even the sound or pronunciation of words can affect your aesthetic.
Poetry is the art of communicating the intensely personal through the air of mystery, often in limited space. If you get stuck, persevere and forget the inner critic and editor. Don’t dwell on perfection. Poetry taps the art of creating and recrafting. Come back to it later to find the poem’s life in its beat, rhythm, form, or lack of, and what it expresses, shows, and demonstrates in its singular beauty.