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!