Rewriting poems, or ‘drafting’ can be as exciting as writing the first draft. It’s like pushing the poem further and further, or it can be like peeling off layers to find the hidden poem. Think of each new version as a new poem.
Notebook & Pen, or Computer
Try both, and see what works for you. I have friends who do all their drafting in notebooks, and others who write only on the computer. Either way, save your drafts, just in case there’s a version that you want to go back to, even if only to salvage a good line. The computer’s great for experimenting with form. Try out different line lengths and stanzas, and settle on the shape that seems to fit the poem.
Beginnings & Endings
The first line needs to draw in the reader. Look carefully at the opening of your poem. Maybe there’s a better first line a little way down the page. Try it without the first few lines. Also, try the poem without the last line / last few lines – maybe your poem ended before you realised. I like last lines that make me want to read the poem over again, I’m less keen on those that hit me over the head to make sure I’ve ‘got it’ Read the last lines of poems you admire, and ask yourself how they work Reading poems, incidentally, is the best way of learning how to write – find the writers you like, read everything they’ve written.
Changing the Point of View / Tense
If your poem’s in first person, try it in third person, or second. See what difference it makes. And try changing the tense. I like poems in the present tense because of the way they draw me in, but it doesn’t work for all poems.
As a way of working on structure, trying cutting up the poem and rearranging the lines. If it leads to just one improvement, it’s worth it. This is a good method if you’re ‘stuck’ and not sure where the poem is heading. If you have two poems that don’t work, try combining them.
Read it Aloud
A good test for a poem is to read it aloud. You will hear where it needs work. Record yourself, or read it to a friend. Or get them to read it back to you. A big test is to perform it in front of an audience – even before anyone says anything, you learn so much about the poem.
Call a Friend
If you’re lucky enough to have a friend who also writes, ask them to comment on your poems and make suggestions. Comment on theirs too – it’s a good discipline for your own writing. It’s much easier to work on other people’s poems because you’re one step removed from them.
How do You Know if it’s Finished?
Paul Valery said a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Trust your instinct. Some poems are relatively quick to write, others hang around. Leave them in a drawer for a while. It’s great to read something you’ve forgotten that you’ve written (if you wait that long) and much easier to work on it.
When you’re reasonably sure you’re done with your poem, think about sending it off to a magazine, e-zine (such as YM Poetry) or a competition. The feeling that this poem is going to land on someone’s desk (or in their Inbox) is guaranteed to sharpen your focus and make you take one final look at that tricky last line.
Cliff Yates’ most recent collection of poems is Frank Freeman’s Dancing School (Salt). Previous collections include Henry’s Clock (Smith/Doorstop), which won both the Aldeburgh first collection prize and the Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet competition. He is a freelance writer, creative writing tutor and a former English teacher whose students were renowned for winning poetry competitions. During his time as Poetry Society poet-in-residence he wrote Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School (Poetry Society). www.cliffyates.co.uk