In my poetry writing classes at Diablo Valley College, revision wasn’t the most popular subject on the menu. For many students, this was their first time taking a poetry workshop, the first time their poems were looked at closely. Some of them had never even written a poem before. The workshop’s format first pointed out what was working in the poem. Only after all strengths were established did we start to discuss what wasn’t working so well and offered possible solutions for making the poem “better.”
This was tricky, depending on students’ ability to see the poem as a made thing, separate from themselves, a work of art in process that needs, well, work. No matter how much I talked about the importance of revision, even saying that writing was revision, my students would often get upset when told their poem wasn’t perfect and ready for publication in the most esteemed literary magazine in the land. Sometimes after the gentlest of critiques, a student started crying or left the room in a huff. I had to find a way to diffuse these tense and often unbearable situations. One day, while discussing a student’s poem, I blurted out, “Hey, the cake isn’t baked yet.”
My students liked this. They laughed. They liked saying it to each other. “Hey, that cake needs more baking.” “Needs more icing.” “More spice.” “Hey, the cake is almost baked, but why don’t you try adding some…” Fill in the blank with an element of poetic craft or good writing. This phrase became ours. We bonded as a class of not only poets, but bakers who knew how to get that cake stirred up, into the oven, and baked! It was a cake, after all. It wasn’t the end of your life if it didn’t come out very well. You can always make another cake.
With the help of my students over many semesters and hours in the poetry kitchen, I came up with a list of revision ingredients. I’m not the greatest cook on the planet. In fact, my most successful baking adventure has been with chocolate chip cookies. I will now drop the culinary conceit.
The following list is a mixture (guess I’m not quite ready to stop with the foodie talk) of my own thoughts on revision, and what I’ve learned from other teachers, poets, and writers.
- Openings. Consider the opening line to your poem as the on-ramp. Now that your first, (or tenth), draft of the poem is finished, do you think this is the best way to enter the poem? Or could you start a few lines later? Or do you need something else entirely? The first line establishes the mood, the tone, the ambience, how the poem will be received by the reader.
- What’s at stake? Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “A work of art is good if it has been written out of necessity.” Look for the passion, the trouble. Even in the most surreal or lyric poem, there is a nucleus of story and, therefore, conflict. One of the most amazing experiences in my writer’s life was taking a three-day poetry workshop with Jack Gilbert. He said terrific and useful things about writing. One was this: “Tell me something about love that matters.” What matters in your poem? What’s at stake?
- Energy. Does the poem have energy all the way through? Are there moments in the poem that don’t really need to be there? Is the description just decoration? Is it deepening the poem’s intent in some essential way?
- Surprise. Poetry makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar. Poetry is meant to wake us up, not keep us in the usual, predictable modes of thinking and feeling. However, here’s another gem from Jack Gilbert: “If everything is crazy, nothing is crazy; real surrealism has to have truth in it.”
- Take a walk. Memorize your poem and then take a three mile walk. Say the poem out loud over and over. You will hear it differently, discover places to edit, and new phrases, images might come to you. Besides walking, I often take my poem for a drive, put the poem right there in the passenger seat. In whatever parking lot I land in, I read the poem. It always amazes me how this process helps with revision, with my vision of the poem.
- Do a headstand. Start backward. Maybe the ending is the beginning.
- Duende. Always add in the duende. This ingredient is difficult to define, but I like what Federico Garcia Lorca wrote: “The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’” Duende helps the artist see the limitations of intelligence, reminding him that, as Lorca said, “Ants could eat him or a great arsenic lobster could fall suddenly on his head.” Duende brings the artist face-to-face with death. Duende is what gives you chills, makes you smile or cry; it’s irrational, earthy, with a dash of the diabolical. You know duende when you feel it.
- Meditate. Let the poem sit in the lotus position. Don’t look at it for a month, or for at least two weeks. If you keep opening the oven, the soufflé will fall. Wait, I forgot. It’s a cake! The same rule applies. You want to get some distance from the poem, so you can see it with fresh eyes, mind, and heart.
- Cleverness, irony, humor. These three ingredients need a special balance. Is the poem only being clever or ironic or funny? The reader wants more from the poem; the reader wants truth.
- Form. Change up the sentence structure. This opens doors and windows in the poem, gives you a chance to make a different kind of music.
- Use of space. How does the poem look on the page? Take chances with space and the arrangement of lines.
- Images. Images create an experience for the reader, so the poem is not just an explanation. See how many images you have in the poem. Metaphors? Similes?
- Endings. One of my poetry mentors once told me that a good ending to a poem is surprising and inevitable. Ending with an image is stronger. Also look and see if the poem already ended three or four lines ago. The poem is an adventure. It has to take the reader somewhere, be it physically, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, and/or spiritually. Not all of these levels are required. Reading the poem must cause a small or big change in the reader.
This list is not all-encompassing. I think these ingredients or elements of revision are the most important. The wonderful poet, Thomas Lux (who died last February) said in an interview:
“This [writing poetry] is not something one chooses to do…It is something I was drawn to. I do it because I love to do it, and because I don’t have any choice. If I don’t write, I feel empty and lost…Poetry exists because there is no other way to say the things that get said in good poems except in poems. There is something about the right combination of metaphor or image connected to the business of being alive that only poems can do. To me, it makes me feel more alive.”
What makes a good poem? There are many answers to that question, as many as there are good poems. What makes a good cake? There’s a banquet of delicious cakes in the world to taste. It takes work to make a beautiful thing. When I’m at my writing desk, working on my twelfth draft of a twelve-line poem, one that may never be fully baked, or one that ends up in the trash, I remember it’s the process I love. It’s the making that gives me nourishing delight.