Revising the elements of a poem

(by which particular effects does your poem “get through” to a reader?)

Some thoughts by Kim Stafford

 

The opportunity for special effects is abundantly present in the decisions a writer makes at each of the following points. All these elements are at work no matter how long or short the poem may be, or what kind of poem it is—haiku to sonnet to epic. So you might consider these elements in revision.

 

1. Title…how could it be more intriguing, prophetic, indelible?

(clarity…mystery…provocation…evocation…connection…some say the title = 20% of the poem’s overall effect, so it pays to tinker until it truly compels)

 

2. First line…how could it be more arresting?

(stake a claim…make an observation…pose a question…begin a memory…)

 

3. The line…how could each line be more mysterious, leaning forward, leading on?

(a kind of independent sentence…)

 

4. Line-break…how could it set up what follows?

(breath pause…“half a comma”…suspense…implication…expectation…a speaking gap…)

 

5. Rhythm…how could it be incantatory? (building a true voice…enlivening a reader’s pulse…)

 

6. Stanzas…how can they clarify the poem’s geography? The overall shape of the poem?

(chapters in a story…shapes on the page…the effect of a vacancy between stanzas…)

 

7. Words…how can they be the exact right set for this poem?

(images…verbs…choosing just-right words…eliminating extra words…“No ideas but in things”…)

 

8. The “word field” of the poem…how can the words together stake out their territory?

(what dialect are we in…specialized vocabulary…soundscape…?)

 

9. Formality 1…what speaking community are we in? 

(high, middle, or low style…the “honeyed vernacular”…)

 

10. Formality 2…are we in school, or in the world? (capitalization…punctuation…essence…)

 

11. Formality 3…is the poem in a traditional or invented form?

(haiku…sonnet…pantoum…villanelle…a formal creative structure of your own?)

 

12. The turn…what species of surprise, shock, or transformation has us here in thrall?

(where in the poem does the essential change occur?)

 

13. The last line…how to offer the reader some form of oblique departure?

(“End with an image and don’t explain”…fighting the urge to sum it up, to tame the moment… …

“A poem should not satisfy your thirst, but intensify your thirst”…)

 

14. The quality of silence after the poem ends…how to cast a spell…

(what was not said…what was implied…what does the reader now suffer, see, know, wonder..?)