This year I had the privilege of attending a lecture by poet Jane Hirshfield. In the span of about two hours, the poet shared with us some great insights, some stunning work, and a revision checklist that I think could help any writer with their poems. I thought I would share the notes I took from that lecture, and hopefully provide the insights I gained that might help any writer out there willing to read through them.
While artistic intent matters, it is important not to dwell too much on it, as it is up to the reader to find meaning in the work.
What else? This is the question that must drive poems that don’t abduct you. Poems are capable of carrying the poet away with inspiration.
Allow yourself to say things that aren’t 100% true 100% of the time.
Find the entrance point of an unreachable idea!
In writing collections/projects, you can approach this in different ways, either a cumulative project written in one time span, or grouping individual poems. The coherence doesn’t have to be obvious. When ordering, find the linear. Open strong and close strong. It is important to hook the reader in the first five poems.
Revision takes place from the inside and the outside.
Important for the author to know WHY the poem was written, and ask if the poem fulfills its purpose.
Outside revision requires outside readings, get assistance from workshopping it.
Read the poem wholly and assess what is found on the page. Look for grammatical unintentional errors, typos, etc.
Ask the poem these questions:
1. What does the poem actually say, as in the literal words on the page?
2. Does the poem say what it wants, or is it confused?
3. Does the poem follow its own impulse more than its original intent?
4. Does the poem go deep enough, take a risk? Can more or less be said to strengthen it?
5. Does the poem know more than before? Did it make a discovery?
6. Does it contain joy, depth, is there muscle in the music?
7. Does the poem want more music?
8. Does its rhythm, structure, etc help the piece achieve its meaning?
9. Does its visual structure support its meaning?
10. Is it true? Is it ethical? Does it feel?
11. Are there things that don’t belong? Are digressions in the poem’s best interest? Are awkward or smooth sections its best interest? Do any moments confuse the reader?
12. ARE THERE CLICHES?
13. Is the poem self-satisfied or predictable?
14. Is it precise? Precise is better than vague?
15. Does the poem allow itself to be strange, but not overtly strange?
16. Is the grammar correct where it is not intentionally unnatural?
17. Does the diction fit?
18. Is the poem in its most effective order?
19. Is the poem in the right voice?
20. Walk through the poem tediously, examining every phrase, every word. Make sure everything matters. Does every movement, every word, usher the poem forward?
21. Does this poem want to be seen, or is it merely a seed to move you to the next poem?
22. IS IT FINISHED? Time is the best editor.
These are the notes that were taken from the lecture. I hope you find them helpful. Many thanks to Vanderbilt University and to Jane Hirshfield! Get her new book: THE BEAUTY. It is fantastic.