The last word may be the editor’s but the first editing belongs to the poet. From the moment of inspiration, through the act of writing the poem, to the final draft is more than putting words on paper in poetic form. It requires dedication to the finished product, a personal desire for perfection and commitment to the best the poem can be. There’s an urgency to convey the feeling or experience to others, for I believe poetry is, like all art, a form of revelation and communication; it should be comprehensible and grammatical. But it should also lead the reader in unexpected directions, open new insights, and explore the human situation.
Having written a poem, I usually leave it for a few days, or months, before editing.
I re-read it with a fresh perspective, better able to see errors and where meaning is unclear.
I check whether imagery is relevant, language fresh and without clichés. Phrases like “Every cloud has a silver lining” come so easily that sometimes we forget to think of a new image.
The computer’s Spelling and Grammar checker can be useful, but I don’t depend on it as it makes mistakes too. I make sure that subject and object, pronouns and verbs agree; it is easy to miss such errors.
I try to ensure that there are no extra words to muddy the focus of the poem: i.e. an unnecessary ‘and’, ‘that’, ‘but’ or ‘then’. Repeated words I change, frequently using Roget’s Thesaurus. Adjectives and adverbs superfluous to the theme are deleted, as not every noun or verb requires a descriptive.
Line-breaks require particular attention, especially as I don’t use punctuation in poetry. The best way I know to check line-breaks is to read the poem aloud, find where the natural breaks occur and use them. Reading aloud also gives a reality check on rhythm and rhyme: is the meter appropriately broken or maintained; are alliteration, assonance and dissonance as effective as possible?
All of which adds up to ensuring that the image or emotion is clear to the reader, that the devices of diction, prosody etc. enhance rather than get in the way of the intended meaning. And always I wonder whether my poem goes beyond surface conclusions to give genuine insight. This is not to say that it is a simple task to edit my own poetry, it’s easier to critique someone else’s work. Some poems need a slight tweak here or there; others, all too many, require a great deal of re-writing, and still mistakes creep in.
Do I enjoy writing poetry? Certainly! I write more poetry than anything else: it’s inspiration, clarification, communication and delight, besides attention to detail.
- Joanna M. Weston, author of A Bedroom of Searchlights (Inanna, 2016)