One of the most popular posts on here this year was a list of thoughts on drafting poems. I was pleased when a poet and educator whom I admire asked if she might share it with some of her students. I’ve re-read the original list, added a few ideas and spruced it up a little. These are questions to ask, perhaps not just when looking at ‘draft’ poems but also when considering poems you might think of as ‘finished’.
1.Does the opening line invite the reader to read the poem? Is it compelling? Is it hard to understand? If so, will it repel the reader or is intriguing? Do you need the first line? The first stanza? Half of the second stanza? Delete until you are left with the poem. Or not, in which case it probably wasn’t meant to be a poem.
2.Have you read the poem aloud? Does it sound ‘right’? Is it hard to read? Does it move and flow well? Does it jolt or falter?
3. Where do the line breaks naturally fall? Are you interested in using breath as a unit of measure to decide this? Do you want to subvert this, and if so, to what purpose? What’s the white space doing? Do you need it? What shape best serves the poem? Have you tried several alternative shapes to find what works best?
4. Do you need to put the poem away until you can see it more clearly? Come back tomorrow. Or next year. If you are struggling with the poem, go for a walk. Read poetry. Read anything. Listen to music. Put the washing out. Do something else.
5. If you are attracted to a word for its ‘cleverness’, it’s probably the wrong word. Is a short, subtle word better than the long, flamboyant, archaic or obscure word? Are there some dull words in your poem? Is that OK if they serve the poem as a whole? Could you find better ones? Get the Thesaurus out. Dive into meanings and glorious alternatives. Is your poem, or certain words or lines, trying too hard to be noticed? Not every line has to be ‘stand out’; ‘quieter’ lines might provide structure, be the setting that allows the jewels to shine, or be regarded as the web that allows the drops of dew to catch the light, or the spider to move (apologies to those with arachnophobia) or whatever metaphor you prefer. That reminds me- have you overdone the metaphors? Similarly, have you got too many similes?
6. Keep drafts. After one hundred and thirty-three drafts, you might decide that the third is the best. Don’t throw an ‘unsuccessful’ poem away. You might find it one day and give it new life.
7. Like a skier on a slalom slope, keep the whole journey in mind. A shift in the balance in the poem will affect something further down. You may need a radical adjustment to your line. You may want to go back to the start.
8. Do your rhymes and assonance serve or choke the poem? Avoid tongue twisters. Do you really need an ‘angry, addled, straggly, shambles of geese’? Or has the language evolved over time to express a lot in a single word. Will ‘a gaggle of geese’ suffice? Read aloud again to check the rhythms. Are some lines too sparse, some too crowded?
9.Every word, every line break, every bit of punctuation needs to count. If you are not convinced, remove or change it. Are there area’s where your poem reads as ‘slack’? Are you at risk of losing your reader? Is the surface ‘tension’ fairly consistent throughout? Consider the part of the poem you are most pleased with- the line or word you think is great. Does it detract from the poem as a whole? Is it out of place like a red rain hat worn by a woman in a little black dress or a Lycra-clad man in stove-pipe hat on a racing bike? Would the poem be more balanced without it?
10. Is the poem “true” in terms of emotional resonance? If you don’t feel that it is, it’s unlikely your reader will. If you have people speaking in the poem, are they using language that people actually speak or is it archaic or unconvincing in some other way?
11. Is your political poem too literal? Does it lack subtlety? Does it tell the reader what to think or ask a question? Can you approach the ‘political’ obliquely, emotionally, drawn on your own experience? Does it lack irony? Could you use allegory, imagery, a ballad or translation to approach the political?
12. Has this poem been done before and possibly better? Can you twist or turn it a few degrees to make it more original and specifically ‘yours’? Are there any memorable lines? Is the poem doing enough?
13. Do your images relate to emotion, or are they there simply to show off? Do they detract from the poem? Are there too many? Not enough? Do you suspect an image or phrase may be a cliché? Is it OK to use cliché in some instances? If you think an image is surprising, original, arresting, but doesn’t fit in this poem, could you keep it for another piece?
14. Have you ‘stolen’ well enough? If you’ve used a model or started with a found piece, have you made it fully your own? If your poem began as a ‘workshop’ exercise, has it moved far enough away from its origins to seem organic or are the building blocks showing? Is that all right?
15. Does the poem contain too many ideas? Is less more?
16. Have you repeated yourself? Have you said the same thing more than once? Covered the same ground twice or more?
17. Can you imply rather than state? Have you credited your reader with as much intelligence as feel you yourself have? Are you stating what is implied elsewhere in the poem?
18. Are you interested in clarity of communication? If so, do you need to make your poem clearer? If there is ambiguity in your poem, does it work in favour of the poem or potentially lead to confusion? Have you checked for ‘shadow’ meanings – (not always easy to detect) i.e words or combinations of words that have resonances and trigger meanings you may not have meant to include in the poem and therefore distract the reader?
19. Is the end of your poem the way you want it to be? Is it stating the obvious? Do you have a stronger line to end on, further up the poem? Would it be better to ‘step off lightly’ than to end with a summary of what has already been said? Would it be best to end with an image rather than a statement? Have you tried removing the last line?
20. Would you be happy to read this poem aloud to someone? Do you like your poem? If not, why not?