Poems are, in part, an extension of ourselves. A reflection of our deepest fears, desires, and needs; both as individuals and as a society. Poems are wishing wells and mirrors. At some point, a good poem extends outside the self while maintaining its roots in you, the writer. Sometimes the things extending— the flora, the fronds, the cedar—rot. They are misshapen and threaten the survival of the rest of the poem. Those things have to be let go.
Yes, I’m talking about “killing your darlings,” becomes someone needs to hear it.
Sometimes we write things that we believe are so ideologically pure and aesthetically devastating that we assert that they have a place where they do not. That piece you’ve been working on that doesn’t seem to be quite there? It’s lacking something, feels disjointed? Go back and look at the phrase or word that started the poem, the one you think is genius, guaranteed you should cut it. You’re attached. I get it, believe me. As a Scorpio I know a thing or two about obsession. But sometimes those obsessions hold us back from getting to the true landscape of our art.
I had a conversation with my friend Eric a few weeks ago about leaving an abusive relationship, and how my leaving was inspired by finding someone new that I developed feelings for. That new person gave me hope, made me realize that there was a life after leaving my ex. Eric said something that I still hold on to today.
“oh yeah, she was your raft relationship”
I’m sure this line came with a very meaningful parable that I have forgotten, but the gist is: a raft is a person or a thing that gets you from one point to the next safely. It’s something to keep you from being pulled under the water. That line that you’re clinging to is probably your raft. It’s the thing that got you from empty page to poem, and now that you are at poem, you can deflate that raft and toss it aside.
Let’s not stop at lines, though, sometimes you need to put the stanza in the trash. Sometimes the whole poem. Rethink the scaffolding even. Poems are not pure, they can be misguided just as easily as us. As the one with the pen, you have the power and opportunity to save it.
I want to say this, and I want you to say it too: not everything I write is good.
Nothing is so groundbreaking that it can’t withstand a revision. We are not dealing in strict dichotomies here; something that isn’t good isn’t necessarily bad. It is an opportunity for betterment, to strengthen both the poem and yourself. Okay, enough preaching. Now, how do you give it up?
Find the poems heart
this will come with more than one reading. Read your work over and over again. Alone and aloud. Find the seed of the idea that started your poem, it will be the point at which your shoulders relax, and your head leans slightly—a sign of familiarity. When you’re reading other peoples poems, it’s the part you circle or underline. Maybe you’ll do the same with your own work.
Find the obsession
When you find what you are trying to say, the obsession will stick out like a sore thumb. Or it won’t. It will be the part at which your eyebrows furrow, your jaw tightens, or gets so lax you stutter over the words. Its the thing that draws a Blues Clues sized question mark in your head. What does this say? You ask because it seems to be completely disconnected or mildly adjacent to the seed.
It may fit thematically, but not structurally. In this case, it is the thing that is interfering with the poems severity. A line or a stanza can’t hit with a bunch of fluff around it. To revisit to the raft metaphor: perhaps your raft is so filled with air that when you get to the shore, you’re buoyed back into the water because of the big, orange, rim impeding you. These bits tend to be harder to deal with because they work, but the question is, are they working for or against? Often they are the latter. We are afraid to get rid of them because they sound pretty. I once went to a talk with poet Rachel Zucker, she spoke about a poetry that resist being confined by “beauty.” Poetry does not have to be gorgeous. It can have edges and spines. Let your poem have texture.
Figure out if you are the butcher or the carpenter
Butchers take a cleaver to shit. Cut off the fat. Get to the lean pink.
If you’re a carpenter (alternatively a sculptor) you can take that individual thing and shape it until it is new. Enough of a deviation from the start that it now is a compliment and not a hindrance. One practice that I have found helpful in revision is to contract and expand. Read-cut away-read-add more. Repeat until you are in the vicinity of Finished.
I have found that modern free verse poetry has drifted away from the tenet of meter. Not all, but some. Poetry is sound too. The sound that the words make when you say them, the sounds that are echoed around them, the sound of a well placed enjambment. If you want, take it back to elementary school: speak slowly with your hand under your chin and really listen to the rise and fall of each word. This too will tell you when something is off, too much or too little.
Ask for Help
A second or third pair of eyes is always better than one. Ask a trusted confidante to give your poem a look. Be specific about your needs. Do you want a simple yes or no, or do you need a line by line close reading of what’s working and what isn’t. Ask for help.
Repeat this process.
If you’re thinking this is a lot of work, welcome to the practice of poetry. When I was in college studying literature I often heard from science and math majors that getting an English degree must be so easy, all I had to do was sit down and write “roses are red, violets are blue”? A Cake Walk. Rarely do those nerds understand the kind of introspection that comes with creative work. It is discipline and practice. We must remember that as well.
some pieces only need to be re-homed. I extract these bits and put them in a google doc entitled (cleverly) Bits. When I’m stuck in writer’s block or need a little something to chew on, I open it up and see what I haven’t used yet, and put it into something new. I scroll through pages and pages until something ticks. Your genius line that you couldn’t wait to use, so you put it somewhere it doesn’t fit? Save it. In journal or a google doc of your choosing.
Okay, I have given you some great tools here. If you want anymore it will definitely cost you, can’t be given out these nuggets for free.
Poetry is not so serious that you can never have fun. Mary Oliver was a poet of great fun. Ross Gay writes with exuberance. Shira Erlichman always talks about the world in a way that seems fraught with wonder. You can too, but there is also work to be done. I write because I have to in order to live, to speak with any sort of knowledge of self and comfort in the world. It is all that makes sense to me. I hope this is received as a passion for poetry and craft and not judgement.