Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: How Revision Improves Our Poems

A four-week on-line workshop to examine your strengths, habits, and common pitfalls as you thoroughly revise four poems.

Revision is something new poets don’t know much about. Generating poems, especially when you first start doing it, is very compelling: you get that great feeling of being able to say something you’ve been wanting to say, you get surprised by your own ideas and language, and sometimes the poem seems to flow out of your pen as if it were pre-ordained, meant to be. It’s a little like falling in love. It’s hard to imagine changing something that seems so natural and fluid a process. Many poets don’t revise their work for this very reason, and that’s a shame, because a good poem can almost always be made better and sometimes even great, with revision.

Better as in clearer to a reader.

Better as in more vivid in sound and imagery,

more delicious to read aloud and see in your mind’s eye.

Better as in more complex or more simple, perhaps more universal.

Better as in closer to exactly what you wanted to say.

Revision: literally to see your poem again (after some time has gone by and the emotion of the generative process has dissipated.)

That’s when you notice you’ve used the word “flare” three times, and weren’t employing the poetic tool of repetition. Not only will this distract a reader, who may look for meaning behind something you did unconsciously, but finding synonyms will make the poem richer and more interesting.

That’s when you notice that you keep using clauses that begin with “of” and you keep putting the “of” at the beginning of a line. Wings of morning, shades of last year, premonitions of disaster, stories of the Holocaust. Anything that becomes a routine in your work is going to lull a reader. You’ve got to break your habits over and over, which means you have to recognize them, which means you have to bring a cold eye to the poem and not be so in love with it that you can’t see its flaws. This is also where you take out cliches and any other overly-familiar language.

Once, early on in my reading and writing of contemporary poetry (see that “of”? I wasn’t kidding), I noticed that Mary Oliver included the phrase “blue shoulders of the pond” in two poems in the same book (Dreamwork). I was horrified that she hadn’t seen it and stopped herself! Although I’ve never talked to her, so maybe she saw it and didn’t stop herself. I thought, “If this happens to Mary, who says she does up to 80 drafts of a poem, then it’s bound to be happening to me, who only does 3 or 4.” That was when I first started thinking revision was important, even though I didn’t yet want to do much of it.

There are so many other things to look at. Are your verbs interesting and active? Are you using so many adverbs and adjectives that it’s hard to follow your train of thought? Are you wedded to a certain kind of sentence? (Molly Peacock showed me I always used the same kind of sentence.) Are your words more Italianate or more Anglo-Saxon: sinuous or bleak? And is that serving the poem or fighting its intentions? Are your metaphors helping the poem be understood, or just showing off? Do they all go in the same direction or do they undercut each other? Do your lines look the same, or are they varied? (Kim Addonizio showed me that I often used the 4/5ths-then-a-comma-then-1/5th type of line.)

See what I mean? That old joke about so-and-so Famous Poet spending all day taking out a comma, replacing it with a dash, and then putting the comma back in again is funny because we know it’s true: poetry requires extraordinary attention to the smallest details.

As Sam Coleridge defined it:

Prose, words in their best order.; poetry, the best words in their best order.”

And then, there’s the opposite problem. You can kill a poem by revising it too much. Which is why we always need to save our first couple of drafts, and as we revise, move away from the material for a while and then come back to it fresh, to see if we’ve retained what was alive and interesting in the poem from the beginning.

Everyone has different revision styles. Robert Hass told me once that when he revises, some of the words change, and some of the order, and punctuation gets moved around, but the overall scaffolding of the original poem tends to be intact in the final draft. His wife Brenda Hillman, however, he said, will revise until there is not one word from the first draft in the finished version. He looked astonished when he said this, even after watching her do it for years.

Galway Kinnell is a great proponent of revising by adding to the poem, rather than always assuming (as I had done before I heard him say this) that things should be taken out.

Sharon Olds taught me that the influence of our dominant Protestant culture remains with us no matter how modern or diverse we think we are. It lives secretly in things like “lists of three,” where the American ear expects to hear a triad:

Friends, Romans, Countrymen

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Ready, set, go!

Red, white, and blue

Peter, Paul, & Mary

Blood, sweat, and tears

Athos, Porthos, and Aramis

Location, location, location


all of this deriving from:

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost

So if you use a triad in your work, know that you’re meeting a reader’s unconscious expectation, which will both give comfort, and lull him or her into not really paying close attention to what you’re saying. If you’re writing about something patriotic or religious, this might be a plus. Those rhythms will reinforce your theme. If you’re trying to foment revolution, however, or just keep your reader on her toes, use lists of two and four and five.

See how much there is to discover? Come revise four of your poems with us over the course of four weeks. The workshop is held on-line via e-mail… so you can do this from anywhere in the world, but you don’t have to be at your computer at any given time.

If you have more questions about what we’ll be doing, or are ready to sign up, drop me a line here. I’d love to hear from you.

November 7 – December 2, 2016  Tuition: $297

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