Editing Poetry: Some Examples

Each poem is only as good as its last (or should that be ‘latest’?) incarnation. Elizabeth Bishop would spend years polishing her poems, making them briefer in the process, packing them with hidden meaning and memorable imagery.

But do we sometimes over-edit things? To test out this hypothesis, I’ll share some of the transformations one of my poems has undergone. I’m still not quite happy with it, but really do want to/need to  write it.

The first version of ‘Who Am I? (Third Culture Kid)‘ appeared quite early on in the life of this blog. I was initially quite proud of it, felt it was honest and heartfelt, and it got some positive comments. Then I took it to a poetry workshop and received lots of comments and suggestions, which made me realise it was not as clear or as precise as it might be. I felt it needed more ‘explanation’, so instead of cutting, I added to it. Here is the second version:

Moving on, I think –
what a blessing!
Head down, prepare
for exit, re-entry, again and again,
glad to stay moss-free,
rolling past the moved-upon
with a wave, a whoopee!

But ultimately revenge is theirs:
for they sprout roots, link up, form tissue
richly alive with shared hours and tales.
Shortcuts roll glib off their tongues,
always creating and leading their own trend,
while the mover is running to catch up,
to fuddle in the language of past generations,
never quite getting the nuance or slang.
I fear we are a shade disappointing:
we stammer, we marvel at the wrong thing.
Our plumage exotic, not enough erotic,
our glamour too alien when you want to preen.
Askew, inefficient, never quite sufficient,
alignment and meekness passed us by.
So easy to shoot at, never enough time
to grieve. Nor find reason or season to rhyme.

So I’ve learnt to hide my real thoughts
my own thoughts
my solitude

Who am I?
I am all that is half-forgotten,
all the places in which I’ve left my heart,
all that is preserved in the mud.
I’m done with digging!
I dare not show you all my layers
for fear the rubble may bury you.

See that flying line of geese? There’s one just off,
destroying the symmetry…

But it too has learnt.
Above all, this:
a short answer to the question:
‘Where are you from?’
just enough humour to colour it harmless.

Unsurprisingly, this was too verbose, too prosy, forcing things down the reader’s throat rather than startling them with an unexpected insight. I tried to experiment a bit with lines and punctuation, in a vain attempt to ‘spice it up’. I suppose I was also aiming for a contrast between cultures – the more oral, ‘hip-hop’ verses alternating with calmer, almost erudite verses. Here’s that opening stanza again in this version:

Moving on                                          what a blessing!

Head down/ prepare

for exit, re-entry                              again and again

glad to stay moss-free//

rolling past the moved-upon

with a wave                                        a whoopee!

Thanks to my poetry tutor, I began to understand some of the poetic bad habits I had picked up along the way. It wasn’t the layout on the page that was the problem, nor the topic itself. There was a kernel of truth there that people could connect with, but I needed to find a way to ‘tell it slant’.

My current attempt has reduced the poem to just the following lines:

Who am I?
I am all that is half-forgotten,
half-mourned, misunderstood.
I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart.
All buried deep inside,
calling halt to excavation.
I am all I dare not show you
for fear you will drown
in my impure
clinging mud.

Not sure that this is going to be the final version, though… 

I’m linking this a good few weeks later to dVerse Poets Pub, where Mary asks us to write a poem about where we are from. A subject that is difficult for me to describe, and yet so close to my heart. There are some wonderful poems on this topic over there, just follow the links!

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34 thoughts on “Editing Poetry: Some Examples”

  1. It’s fascinating to see how you’ve used the editing process on your poetry, Marina Sofia! And you do capture some powerful realities in those few lines. I think the way a poem evolves and takes form is fascinating!

    1. Sadly, I only have my own examples to give. I’d love to see the process and draft versions of Bishop’s or Plath’s poetry, or any other poet who liked to edit extensively. You can see some manuscripts with crossings out, but not the whole thought process behind it.

  2. Your latest version would work without the last 2 lines, since they are implicit in the previous lines.

    I still like the first version though (and I like both better than the middle versions). Perhaps you have two poems here.

  3. Intriguing! I don’t often comment on your poetry posts because I’ve never been comfortable with analysing poetry – for me, there either is a personal reaction or there isn’t, and that’s about as deep as I get. So…may I just say, my strongest personal reaction is to the first version? I am sorry to lose those geese, and I loved the description of the non-movers growing their own language and shortcuts etc. I admit I prefer more explanatory poetry in general, though – I suspect I’m a lazy reader when it comes to poetry. I don’t know that I would ‘understand’ the third version if I had read it in isolation…

    Hope you don’t mind me rambling on…

    1. Thank you – I think it’s great to have your personal reaction to it, as fellow poets sometimes focus too much on craft and word choice, rather than the emotional response. (Which is very valuable too, of course, but it’s nice to have both).

  4. I prefer the last version. It’s clean and succinct with an easy, natural musicality. Too many words can obscure the message, not enough and it gets lost. You did a great job editing. Bravo!

    1. Thank you, it does feel like I’m killing my babies. I was wondering if maybe I should break it up into two poems, rather than cover everything in one. Or am I just clinging onto my babies?

  5. Oh this was nicely done! I liked how you took us through your editing process and what thoughts and comments you encountered. Your final version is indeed succulent and precise – but the earlier versions will always have a charm. You did afterall create them! They had an investment.

    1. Thank you, my dear, editing feels sometimes like cutting bits of your body off, doesn’t it? I like the ‘short answer to the question where are you from’ – that will probably have to find its way in there somehow…

  6. Thank you Marina Sofia for sharing your process here. It’s wonderful that you’re a dedicated, serious writer. I can learn much from you. I very much liked the last two versions. As a novice, I’m not qualified to critique except to say that you have clearly have talent, love what you do and share it so we can enjoy it. Thanks for that!

    1. You’re too kind. But you know, when it comes to poetry, we are all novices… The moment we think we know everything, that’s when we no longer write poetry. Exploring is everything!

  7. The process is intriguing.. and actually my reaction when reading the longer poem it was that exact stanza that really was the core of it, and I really like the re-write (though I think that the stanza could have worked well also in the first version..) . I really spend too little time rewriting my own poetry, and this example is something to learn from.

    I will rewrite my sonnet series at one point soon so I have to face it.. and the feedback I receive is so valuable.

    1. Aww, thanks! Sometimes I feel that I just make things worse and worse the more I tinker with a poem… but at some point it will be ‘there’ – not perfect, but at least closer to what I want it to be.

  8. Editing is such a personal thing; only the critical voice within has credibility. I think you are correct in that there is enough grit & heart for two shorter poems, or more–or some of it may/could be but a preamble for a more epic introspective journey. that is what is so fascinating about running with the dVerse dogs; some poems can be 10 words, or a haiku, or six words ala Hemingway. Short forms have their place in the lexicon of truth, but so do the two page Homeric efforts. I like the lines /I dare not show you all my layers/for fear the rubble may bury you/.

    1. Far be it from me to criticise the two-page (or more) Homeric efforts! 😉
      I like the ease with which you incorporate prose in your poetry – maybe it’s the theatrical training. I tend to shy away from prose poems – perhaps I’ve seen it badly done too many times. Although a lot of my favourite poets did write prose poems: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Gertrude Stein.

  9. I really DID enjoy the progression of your poem, Marina Sofia. I do think it is good to rework a poem, as so often when one looks at a poem a bit later one sees it with fresh eyes & revisions come to mind. I like how you took a much longer poem and broke it down to its meat. I really like the “calling halt to excavation” and feel the same about certain things..as often this ‘excavation’ serves no positive purpose!

    1. It’s a bit like sculpture, isn’t it? I know there’s a good poem in there somewhere, if only I can dig it out of the stone block… so perhaps some excavation is good (smiles)!

  10. My favorite is the latest and reduced version. The more simple imagery is nonetheless striking. As one who has also lived in different countries and recently relocated I also feel at times that ‘I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart.’

    1. I knew you’d understand… And, sadly, there is no going back. Whenever you return to a place, it is never quite the same, it only stays eternally young in your heart.

  11. I enjoyed this process of editing..isn’t it similar to the cutting of a gem?..ah this final version does glitter..”I am all the places in which I’ve left my heart” reflects the most light…beautiful…

  12. After over 30 years of ‘REAL’ work.. most of which are spent in the world of Federal Service.. heavy regulations.. and oh my GOD so much red tape.. in following all the rules with the finest points of pencils.. Poetry.. dance.. and martial arts.. which are delightfully similar to me.. is my escape for creativity and ART.. and the ZEN way of that is to practice and practice and celebrate imperfection as well.. as i am always mused when imperfection says the most in fewer or more words..:)

    My greaTEST ACCOMPLISHMENT is never thinking about it.. not going back.. and moving ahead.. the same as a Nautilus or Robin Williams does in the DEAD POET’S SOCIETY..

    LESS i fall off the desk of FREEDOM’S WAY.. in creativity of imagination in art more fully unleashed and released in continuously changing human influenced forms manifest as the Human ‘Quantum’ Mind Unleashed and Released FREE…

    A blissful place that is to be.. when folks allow it.. so yeah.. a solitary one too..

    as uncharted territory does scare the hell out of some folks genetically so..

    more or less..:)

    So yeah.. i guess.. in that way this speaks for
    itself.. and thanks for your words of
    inspiration and tolerating
    that here..;)

    as the practice itself is
    gift enough
    for
    me..:)

      1. Yeah.. i guess my definition of that is ‘we’ live in cultures
        where ‘real’ work is considered something that
        gains money or recognition; and without
        THAT a person is of no value.

        I like to think of and most
        importantly FEEL
        MY real work
        as a work of
        practicing
        LOVE of life
        in all i do.. but

        that’s hippy talk
        where i come from..;)
        in deep south ‘fundie’
        Red-State land.

        I am born in 60,
        staying there
        with the Beatles,
        Yellow Submarines,
        and Sargent Peppered
        bands, I guess..;)
        AND gnostic
        JEsus,
        dug up,
        in
        ’59…

        AT least for
        now,
        TG..:)

        i dig it..;)

        And don’t worry..
        i pledge NOT to fill
        up your page
        like this
        again..
        with smiles…:)

  13. very interesting… and glad you shared the process with us… for me the “problem” often starts when i want to pack too many details into my poems – it kinda overwhelms people and often feels more like a report than poetry… i like the first and third version

  14. I’ve discovered right here at dverse how editing can really improve on a poem or essay. The excavating and clinging mud are wonderful metaphors for the crap we need to rid ourselves of…and there is a beautiful sense of coming into one’s own that stands out..the geese line is marvelous….

  15. Editing clearly captured the essence of your poem. The last version excels!
    (but, IMHO, would take out impure mud and put the burial by rubble back in your ending)

  16. that fear to reveal ourselves, because we worry that we will drown another…so very true. I think we all tend to hide parts of ourselves, either because we don’t want to burden others…or because we worry that if they know all, they’ll lose all respect.

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