Are You Ruining Your Poems?
Trying to improve your poems might be killing them. Instead, try this approach.
Photo by Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash
Whenever I lead a workshop, I am acutely aware that comments can either further catalyze the poet’s process—helping them bring the poem’s generative impulse to fruition—or do the opposite, stunting the poem before it actually becomes a poem.
But we don’t need a workshop to ruin a poem’s potential for us. We can do it ourselves. Believe me, I do. The draft is like a tiny sapling. I think: Oh my gosh, it’s a tree! Then I stuff ideas like dry tinder under the tree, light a match, and turn the poem to ash.
This is because I’m trying to make the poem “better.” I’m applying poetic technique as if the poem were a machine made of words that can be fixed. I’m jumping forward with an editorial mindset, asking the wrong question—How can I make this poem better?—when I should be asking, How can I honor—not ruin—what I’ve barely begun?
Doing this strips the poem of its potential. When this happens, as my poet friend Jackie told me recently, “You can’t be trusted with your own work.” It’s not that I shouldn’t want to make it better, but I jump ahead. It’s understandable given the time constraints placed on my writing by work-that-pays-bills and parenting.
Here are some of the ways I walk myself back from ruinous tinkering.
Ride the generative impulse through to insight
In his recent book The Story of a Poem, poet Matthew Zapruder suggests that a poem is a structure made to hold strange, luminous, intuitive truths that would otherwise go orphaned. A poem is where “private intuitions of significance [enter] some kind of a tentatively collective realm.”
“So many things happen to a person, are thought and said, and only some of them glow. Something glows off the page or out of life, and it is taken into the poem. Each poet will find things the others cannot.”
I have ruined many poems by not staying long enough—not going far enough into the material—to find what glows and then to build a poem worthy of it. I may have started with a scent, a hint, a signal but I lost it somewhere along the way. Then the poem becomes just a record of my playing around with words.
We need to stay with the generative impulse long enough to recognize poetic insights and then build a poem capable of holding them.
Stay close to the feeling of the poem
Poetry requires us to remain close—immersed in—unsayable feelings. “Poems are where the transition from private emotion in to public myth, from the idiosyncratic into the collective symbol, and vice versa, is made,” Zapruder says.
When I jump from private emotion to the collective meaning too quickly, I miss something. I end up dabbling with abstracts or with something like experience is not deeply felt.
I might skip over feeling states because they are uncomfortable. This is only natural. It’s every poet’s work to go into the mess of experience and feeling—not into ideas—to find “what glows.” But between the generative phase and revision, I can easily lose connection to those.
How to re-access feeling? I lead myself back through language. Sometimes clues are left in very early drafts or in the pre-writing I do—the images and bits of language collected in my notebooks. Sometimes I can find my way back by revisiting particular artworks, sometimes a photograph, a rock, a piece of music or some other “chime” for that feeling state. I look for positive triggers.
Use play strategically to go beyond what is immediate
Every poet works differently. So ask yourself: What method or game reliably puts my mind into a receptive, playful mode? Working in found poetry? Associative imagery? Cutting and pasting lines back together? Writing the poem backwards? Erasing every seventh word and replacing it with the next word down in the dictionary?
For me, sound is the random element that gets me beyond where I’ve started. I riff on the page, not making any sense, just following word sounds, scribbling lists of words and phrases. Through this process, I often stumble into “intuitions of significance”— the poem’s truer insight or direction.
I sometimes braid unrelated poems together to see the effect. Or I play with lineation and form, deliberately choosing what feels odd or awkward to see what that tells me about the poem. Have I mentioned that I never discard early drafts?
The beauty of practicing deliberate play is that I can always go back. It frees me up. I can scrap anything that doesn’t work. Giving myself the opportunity to see what doesn’t work is as crucial as seeing what does.
A few other reminders I find personally helpful
Don’t lose the music because you’re trying to make meaning.
Give the poem time, but don’t let the generative thread go — maintain a connection. Put it in a drawer, but read your poem from time to time.
Be careful with clarifying — for whom? Don’t clarify everything to the point that the poem loses its essential strangeness.
Don’t mistake obtuseness or artfulness for the primal mystery that drives excellent poems.
It’s okay to abandon drafts entirely. If they don’t want to go any further right now, respect that. All is not lost, just recycled. Often a line or an image from the tossed draft will come back in a new poem in a surprising way.
What helps you bring your poems to fruition? How do you avoid ruining your poems? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Upcoming Events / Poet to Poet Community
The Poets Circle: Drop-in Conversations
MAY: Flow & Modulation—On Variation
May 3, 6-7pm MT & May 17, 12-1pm MT
How do you invite variation into your manuscript? How do the authors you admire work with the principle of variation?
JUNE: The Shapes of Things—On Form
June 7, 6-7pm MT & June 21, 12-1pm MT
How do you work with the principle of form in your poems and in your manuscript? Is form a generative force, a guiding principle for revision, or both?
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This is some of the most brilliant and pragmatic advice I've ever seen on keeping poems alive during revision, and on revision itself. I needed it today as I work on drafts I'm writing for a mutual friend's marathon. THANKS Radha~!
Radha, what a perfect first piece of writing about writing to pick up after I've been disconnected from much (but not all) of my writing life over the last month. It's a wonderful reminder that writing can be play, that letting the work simmer in a drawer is also part of writing.