Finishing a Poem: Advice on Revising

You just finished a poem… or so you thought. While you may think you’re done after sitting down and finally putting all the ideas that have been going through your head together, you actually have a long way to go. After writing a poem comes revising, which can be pretty difficult. To help with revising, I’ve asked three established poets for their advice: Miriam Pederson, professor at Aquinas and author of many poems and three chapbooks; Robert Haight, writer of two books and many poems on nature; and Jack Ridl, former professor at Hope College and noted author of numerous books.
    
Miriam Pederson suggests that the first thing to do is to adjust your mind. Allow yourself to think about the poem as a work of art that is still in process. Don’t be so set on the way you first wrote it that you can’t go back and make it better. Once you have done that, your poem will really be able to flourish.
Robert Haight advises labeling every word. Strong, descriptive words that really add a lot to the poem get a plus mark above them. Weak, abstract, filler words, like "there" or "it" or "the", or a soft verb like "is," "was,"  or "seems" get minus signs over them. After all the words have signs over them, you can go back in and check the balance of minus and plus words. Having only plus words may make too strong of a sentence. On the other hand, you also don’t want too many minus words in one line. After looking the poem over, go through it and find words you can take out.
   
Jack Ridl reminds us, though, that just taking out words won’t work. We need to also go in and see where we can add good words or lines to a poem. He quotes Billy Collins saying that a poem of his is "done" when he can't cut any more and can't add any more. He also suggested working with the beginning and end of the poem to make sure that it begins when your thought actually begins and the ending where it finishes instead of having a few lines that don’t have to do with the poem at the beginning and end.
   
Pederson tells us to keep in mind that when revising, we also need to make sure that we not only have adjectives, but also good verbs. We need strong verbs that can really resonate. These give the poem life.
Each also recommends ideas such as playing with modifiers to try and give a new perspective, reading the poem out loud, picking a good title to “help the reader to enter the poem”, and playing with the line breaks and rhythms. These will help to truly finish your poem.

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.